The Kern County Planning Commission is scheduled to meet on Thursday and the agenda could include one of the toughest debates facing county leaders this year.
Should the county ban or regulate the cultivation, processing and distribution of the stuff in unincorporated areas?
Planning commissioners will have a massive, detailed environmental report in front of them – complete with comments from the public and modifications to the document on which to base their decision.
Using that information they’ll have to pick one of two options to recommend to the Kern County Board of Supervisors for final approval.
The first option – a ban - is easy to understand.
State voters approved Proposition 64 last year making adult-use marijuana legal in California.
But the law allows all cities and counties to choose for themselves whether it should be allowed in their jurisdiction.
Kern County has been trying to control the impact of medical marijuana and the people who sell it for years – with mixed success.
Take this case for instance.
On Tuesday the Board of Supervisors will hear a code enforcement case against a group of people who converted a couple of retail sections of a Mojave shopping mall into a massive indoor marijuana field.
When they were cited by county code enforcement officers, they had more than 1,100 plants growing.
The county only allows 12 on a parcel of land.
County officials are proposing more than $28,000 a day in fines.
And violations of county ordinances carry misdemeanor penalties.
But County Counsel Mark Nations said the perpetrators can make $3 million off those plants and are more than happy to brush off the misdemeanor conviction.
Right now the county has trouble getting rid of those growers or the host of medical marijuana dispensaries that pop up, sell their product until they’re busted and then move into another space down the road to sell again.
“That’s what we’re facing. You don’t have much of a cudgel to wield,” Nations said.
A ban would make both adult-use and medical marijuana businesses illegal under county zoning laws.
Existing cannabis shops would have to close – though they’d be given time to phase out their operations.
Once the full ban would go live, the owners of cannabis businesses that flout the law – both new and old - would be subject to misdemeanor criminal charges, administrative fines and penalties.
The county would, the environmental document anticipates, create a Cannabis Activity Enforcement Task Force to provide proactive enforcement of the county ban.
The price tag for that, an August briefing document from the Kern County Planning and Natural Resources Department notes, could range between $1.2 and $2.7 million a year.
And Nations said it’s not sure how effective the county could make the ban.
“I do think there’s more teeth in the proposed ordinance,” he said. “But the fact remains that (a violation would be) a misdemeanor. Unless the state is true to its word that it is going to step in and close illegal shops, then we’re still going to be fighting this battle.”
The other option is to regulate commercial cannabis operations, place tough restrictions on their numbers, locations and how they conduct business and then fund enforcement through the tax revenue they generate.
Doing that could generate around $1.5 million in additional revenue to the county, a good portion of which would be funneled into county programs to protect children from cannabis and help people struggling with addiction overcome their problems.
But regulating cannabis would be a lot of work.
The environmental report documents a complicated, exhaustive system of laws – based on the findings of the environmental investigation – that would lay out every aspect of commercial cannabis operations in unincorporated Kern County.
There could be 2 million square feet of indoor marijuana cultivation and 150 acres of outdoor pot agriculture.
The maximum number of medical marijuana dispensaries allowed in the county would be 32.
Only two of those shops could be located in each of 16 geographical subdivisions of the county.
That would allow a maximum of eight shops in unincorporated Bakersfield.
All cannabis businesses would be confined to certain zone districts and could only be established at a distance of at least a half-mile away from schools, day care centers and other sensitive locations.
And they would all have to go through a planning approval process with many being required to go to the Kern County Planning Commission or the Kern County Board of Supervisors for final approval.
And there are more rules now.
CHANGES TO THE PROPOSAL
After the environmental impact report was released earlier this year, the public was encouraged to look over the document and give feedback.
Those responses included a wide range of input - from handwritten cannabis flow charts and timelines to formal letters in opposition to legalization and appeals from existing pot shops and their representatives to regulate and include them in the new cannabis business world in Kern.
Those comments generated even more rules as county planners weighed the wisdom of comments.
Here are a few of those new rules.
All cannabis businesses would have to install equipment to prevent the smell of pot from drifting out of their building.
Cannabis-testing facilities – critical to making sure the product is safe for the humans who will use it – would need to maintain digital record systems to which the County of Kern would have access.
All businesses would need to be gated securely and lighted well 24 hours a day for safety reasons.
And the list keeps going.
On Thursday, if the issue does land on the Planning Commission agenda as planned, commissioners would have to weigh tough regulations against an outright ban and come up with a decision.
The meeting will begin at 7 p.m. in the Kern County Board of Supervisors chambers at 1115 Truxtun Ave.