by Monica Robinson
Authentic champagne is created in France, highly acclaimed wine comes from Napa and Humboldt County stands as the central hub for premium cannabis.
Measure A, also known as the Humboldt Cannabis Reform Initiative (HCRI), is a voter initiative scheduled to appear on the March 5, 2024 ballot in Humboldt County. If approved by voters, this measure would introduce 38 pages of new rules and restrictions to all existing cannabis farmers operating legally in Humboldt.
Origins of HCRI
The HCRI spawned from a conflict between Kneeland residents and a neighboring cannabis farm concerning water resources and traffic. Mark Thurmond and Cal Poly Professor Emerita Betsy Watson took charge as proponents, collaborating with people in other areas of the county.
A petition circulated, highlighting the protection of the environment and small cannabis farmers, along with preventing large scale cannabis farms. After reaching 7,000 signatures, the measure qualified for the ballot.
Notably, the 38-page initiative was drafted by a San Francisco law firm, Shute Mihaly & Weinberger, which was submitted on March 4, 2022, and did not undergo public review or receive public input. If passed, Measure A cannot be altered or amended from its original form, requiring a ballot initiative for the next elections.
Due to the impact of changing market dynamics and statewide legalization of cannabis, Humboldt County revamped its legal framework. The Humboldt Board of Supervisors (BOS) enacted two land use ordinances, starting with the Commercial Medical Marijuana Land Use Ordinance in 2016 and the Commercial Cannabis Land Use Ordinance in 2018.
Both followed public scrutiny with many stakeholders including cannabis cultivators, environmental groups, neighborhood organizations, as well as county and state officials for implementation. Further refinements were made in 2020 to enhance the framework’s efficacy.
“These changes have successfully reduced the overall environmental footprint of the industry and strategically relocated many [cannabis] farms to agricultural land,” said Executive Director of the Humboldt County Growers Alliance (HCGA), Natalynne Delapp.
Delapp explained how the county has experienced an 89% decline in cannabis farms since 2015, decreasing from 15,000 illegal grows to 775 legal permitted farms, with an estimated 1,000 illegally still operating.To obtain cultivation permits, applicants must display the serviceability of their farms’ access roads, reduce neighborhood impacts and ensure water sourcing methods are environmentally sustainable.
At a BOS meeting on June 27, 2023, the Director of Planning, John Ford, explained the agencies subject to review include the county Department of Public Works, Department of Environmental Health, along with state and federal agencies owning public land, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, Regional Water Quality Control Board and often surrounding tribes.
Foggy fine print
The initiative would modify the county’s General Plan, which serves as the primary guide for land use planning in Humboldt. Delapp said this revision would replace a significant portion of the existing county cannabis regulations, which took eight years of robust public process.
The initiative is “unworkable and would be devastating to the [local] cannabis industry,” said Attorney Paul Hagen from the North Coast Environmental Law Office.
A restriction of one active permit per cultivator could leave additional permits for activities void.
“If Measure A passes, the seed of [Humboldt] cannabis tourism will die before it has a chance to root,” said Founder of Humboldt Cannabis Tours, Matt Kurth.
Annual expiration of cultivation permits would make reapplication necessary. The vagueness of the renewal process creates ambiguity regarding public hearings for renewal applications. Ford explains in the Amended Analysis that conducting public hearings annually for permit renewals is inconceivable. Furthermore, renewal on any outstanding complaints would be prohibited regardless of validation.
The HCRI broadly defines expansion as “any increase in the number or size of structures connected to cultivation,” including environmental improvements. In relation, farms must be located on two-lane paved roads, challenging the hundreds of farms currently operating on dirt roads. According to a technical memorandum provided by LACO Technologies engineering department for the county in 2020, upgrades would range from $170,000 to $280,000 per mile.
Cultivation of cannabis includes drying, curing, grading and trimming, requiring a ‘processing’ license which would also be prohibited.
Additionally, farms would be capped at 10,000 square feet, including a discretionary review for any expansion over 3,000 square feet.
Out of sight, out of mind
In an effort to explain why class II whitewater rapids rivers are being de-watered, Watson provided a map of permitted cannabis farms. She said there were 1200 active cannabis permits with an estimated 300 non-operational due to the overproduction of cannabis statewide from price drops.
“In 2022, the south fork of the Eel [river] ran dry, and Freshwater Creek did not have enough water for the park to have its annual swimming hole,”said Watson.“The ordinance in place now calls for 2400 more [permits], for a total of 3600.”
Watson added that the initiative would cap the number of permits at 1200.
According to the HCRI Amended Analysis by the Humboldt County Planning and Building Department on June 27, 2023, there are 1,027 active permits, with 210 of them being newly approved. Areas with prime agricultural land are concentrated with retirement, remediation and relocation permits, which were redirected from environmentally sensitive areas.
“This is prohibition masquerading as environmentalism,” Delapp said.
A controversial summary, due to letters filed back and forth between HCRI’s attorney and the county’s Planning Department of the HCRI analysis, refers to geological studies, stating “the initiative’s groundwater protection measures are unnecessary because average per-acre groundwater recharge in Humboldt County is high, even during drought years.”
Currently, there are no environmental groups in the county endorsing the initiative or taking sides.
“The current ordinance is the best in the country, maybe even the world,” a confidential source from a local environmental group said.
As of Oct. 11, 2023, the HCGA and seven cannabis farmers filed a lawsuit at the Humboldt County Court, alleging the petition of the HCRI did not include the complete initiative text, as required by law. It also contests false and misleading information in the petition. As a result, the lawsuit seeks the removal of the initiative from the ballot to protect the integrity of the election process.
If you are not a registered voter and want to participate, go to http://registertovote.ca.gov. The last day to register is Oct. 23, 2023.