Kern County can choose to ban marijuana businesses or regulate, police and tax them.
Boil down thousands of pages of environmental review recently released by the Kern County Planning and Natural Resources Department and you get that binary choice.
But making that choice isn’t likely to be simple.
The county has struggled for a decade with how to regulate medical marijuana.
It’s tried licensing medical marijuana dispensaries, banning them, allowing them and pretty much everything in between.
It’s been petitioned, sued and beaten in court and had its past ordinances overturned.
Right now, a limited number of medical marijuana dispensaries are allowed in unincorporated Kern County while others, which came in after a moratorium was put in place in November, are banned.
But legal or not, the county has never been able to completely stop shops from opening and distributing marijuana on its turf.
Now, after last year’s passage of Proposition 64, recreational use of marijuana is legal in California. The state is creating a regulatory scheme that would allow businesses to grow, process and distribute cannabis starting in January 2018.
Kern County doesn’t have to allow marijuana businesses to operate in the unincorporated sections of the county.
But it can.
So county planners have spent months drafting a full environmental report on the impact of a marijuana business ban and a marijuana business plan so the Kern County Board of Supervisors can choose which path to take.
Kern County Planning Director Lorelei Oviatt said the county must choose one path forward – or the other - by the end of October so new rules can go into place before the state’s January deadline.
Both routes have environmental impacts. Allowing more businesses to come into the county can contribute to worse air quality and other impacts, the report states.
On the other hand, the report notes, banning marijuana businesses would push Kern County residents to drive long miles and emit copious amounts of pollution.
The EIR also helps address legal concerns that the county, when it approved past ordinances, didn’t comply with the California Environmental Quality Act.
That’s the issue that ultimately killed a de-facto Kern County ban on medical marijuana dispensaries.
This new environmental report lays out the basic structure of both possible routes the county could take on the controversial topic of marijuana business, both medicinal and recreation ones.
Under either a full ban or a regulatory plan, the county intends to prohibit the use of cannabis in any county park or “other public space.”
If a ban is put in place, commercial cultivation, processing and distribution of cannabis would be prohibited.
Medical marijuana dispensaries would be forced to close – though existing ones that are permitted under the county’s current stopgap policy would have some time to phase out their operations.
And the host of marijuana growers and processors who hope to launch operations in Kern County’s proven agricultural territory would be told to look elsewhere.
Oviatt said she has already talked to the Kern County Sheriff's and District Attorney’s offices about building a task force to combat violations of the ban if supervisors go that route.
If the county chooses to allow those businesses to set up shop, the environmental report outlines some ground rules that planners think should be in place.
The businesses would need a state license.
And the county would regulate – in cooperation with the state - how those businesses operate in Kern County, including controls on where they can locate, the manufacturing and storage of the drug, laboratory testing, and how it is labeled, transported and sold.
All businesses would need to obtain a conditional use permit from the county to operate, a process that could bring each of them before the Kern County Planning Commission and ultimately the Board of Supervisors for individual approval.
It would also set up an enforcement and penalties scheme for violation of county regulations.
If the county chooses to regulate marijuana businesses, Oviatt said, she is suggesting that supervisors put a tax measure on the ballot that could draw in between $39 million and $47 million.
That’s a lot more than the $1.5 million in sales tax revenue that the county can expect to get just from allowing the businesses to exist.
And it would be critical to fund Kern County enforcement efforts, support drug education and rehabilitation efforts and boost the county’s flagging economy.
“I have property owners that are interested because they want to know what is going to happen with these illegal dispensaries,” Oviatt said.
Some property owners, she said, are interested in exploring a new financial opportunity.
“We’re part of the Southern California market,” Oviatt said. “There’s a lot of interest. A lot of interest.”
The proposal to allow and regulate marijuana businesses includes suggestions for limiting the number of business that could be permitted in unincorporated Kern County.
Oviatt said the environmental report suggests allowing no more than 2 million square feet of indoor cultivation county-wide.
Processing space – where the plant is turned into edible treats – would be limited to 500,000 square feet under the current proposal.
No more than 40 retail stores would be allowed in the county and each unincorporated community would be allowed only two shops.
A maximum of 150 acres of outdoor growing space would be permitted by the county, Oviatt said.
Last week’s release of the environmental report kicks off an official public comment period that will last through Sept. 11.
The report will also be discussed with the Kern County Board of Supervisors during its 2 p.m. meeting on Aug. 22.
Approval of the EIR — a required step before the county can approve an option — would begin on Sept. 28 when the Kern County Planning Commission takes up the report.