California passes bills to regulate marijuana cultivation

California Governor Jerry Brown.  Image: Ohad Ben-Yoseph.

California Governor Jerry Brown.  Image: Ohad Ben-Yoseph.

Medical marijuana has been legal in California since 1996, when the state passed Proposition 215 establishing the Compassionate Use Act.  It took almost 20 years, but legislators finally took steps to create regulations for the marijuana industry.  Over the weekend three bills - AB 243, AB 266, and SB 643 - were signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown.  Of these, AB 243 is the most significant in my view, as it finally creates a regulatory framework for marijuana cultivation, the first step in the supply chain that is often overlooked.  The bill would empower several agencies, including the Department of Food and Agriculture, the Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the State Water Resources Control Board, to develop regulations that would minimize the environmental impacts of marijuana cultivation while encouraging farmers to participate in the regulatory process instead of remaining in the shadows.

That last part is important - by some counts there are around 50,000 marijuana farms in California, and many of them are adept at clandestine agriculture.  Alissa Walker, writing for Gizmodo, wrote a really nice article this week pushing back on the "weed is sucking rivers dry" narrative.  It's worth a read.  She also quotes me saying that the job isn't done yet: regulators still have to develop the regulations and get farmers to participate:

[T]here’s another risk for suddenly applying regulations to what has thrived as an essentially black market industry for decades, according to a study by Ryan Stoa, a Senior Scholar at Florida International University who specializes in environmental and natural resources law.

He spent the last few months interviewing cultivators and scientists throughout the Emerald Triangle and believes that some regulatory water rights issues still need to be worked out—especially because so much of the state’s meager rain falls in those northern counties where pot cultivation is expanding. “If you take a really heavy-handed approach to regulation, people will stay on the black market,” he says. “Regulators need to find that delicate balance between regulations that protect the environment while providing incentives for farmers to participate.”

It will be fascinating to watch California set up these environmentally-conscious cultivation regulations.  Even states that have legalized recreational marijuana use (like Colorado or Washington) have done very little to address cultivation, much less the environmental impacts of it.  California, it seems, is giving it a shot.

Regulating the drought in California, Ctd

California cabbage crops.  Photo: Naotake Murayama.

California cabbage crops.  Photo: Naotake Murayama.

In a sign of how wobbly California's water law regime has become, farmers with long-standing water rights in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta made an offer to the state of California late last month in which they promised to cut their water use by 25%, in exchange for a promise from the state that no further reductions would be applied.  It was a shrewd and unprecedented tactic, considering many farmers hold decades or even centuries-old water rights.  Under California's hybrid prior appropriation/riparian system of water law, many farmers obtained their water rights by making use of waterways in the early 20th century.  Because older rights take priority over newer rights, older rights holders are virtually guaranteed their allotment, even in times of scarcity.  But this year's drought is so severe that state regulators are enforcing mandatory cuts on even the most senior water rights holders.  

And that prompted farmers in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to negotiate the 25% reduction settlement, which the state agreed to last week.  The feeling is that while 25% cuts are painful, at least farmers can plan for those reductions with some certainty, and avoid a doomsday 100% reduction scenario.  This farmer sums it up well:

“For me, 25 percent I can handle,” said Gino Celli, who farms 5,000 acres of tomatoes, alfalfa and corn in the delta. “Anything more than that — man, I’m done.”

Said another:

“There is a threat that the state might try the unthinkable and tell us that we cannot use any of the water,” said Dennis Gardemeyer, a delta farmer who helped spur the deal. “I and almost everyone in the delta think that will result in all manner of lawsuits and they will not prevail, but there’s always that threat.”

Now that the framework for agricultural water reductions are in place, farmers will have to choose between a painful but feasible voluntary reduction, or roll the dice with their existing rights and potential litigation.  It seems all but certain that cuts to long-standing rights holders are forthcoming:

Other cuts are virtually inevitable for farmers who don’t participate, said Felicia Marcus, chair of the state Water Resources Control Board. [...] Further cuts will go beyond any that have ever happened before: “Senior [water rights] holders have never been cut as much as they will be this year,” Marcus said. “Lawsuits are inevitable.”

Under the deal farmers in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta had until today, June 1, to submit their reduction plans to the state.  It will be interesting to see how many of the region's farmers submit plans and how many of those plans get approved.  It's not clear at this point what the state's criteria will be for evaluating those plans, but a pragmatic approach would favor reductions that can be easily monitored and enforced, like foregoing a crop entirely or fallowing a field.  In some cases cutback orders are being enforced by the honor system, and as little as one fifth of farmers may be complying with mandatory water reductions.  Negotiated water reduction deals are promising, but reducing the monitoring and enforcement pressure on state regulators should be a central component to any lasting water law reform.