If Tuesday was any indication, the next two months should be filled with passionate debate about the future of commercial cannabis in unincorporated Kern County.
In October the Kern County Board of Supervisors will decide whether to regulate or ban the commercial cultivation, processing and distribution of cannabis in its jurisdiction.
On Tuesday it reviewed the environmental document that will guide the debate sure to rage between now and then.
A large crowd of marijuana advocates, and a couple concerned community members opposed to anything but a ban, spoke passionately about the best route the county could take.
That debate will continue through a Kern County Planning Commission meeting next month and a final supervisors meeting in October.
THE BAN SCENARIO
Kern County Planning and Natural Resources Director Lorelei Oviatt said that environmental impact report on the business of marijuana is the first of its kind by a city or county in California.
A ban would shut down the current mishmash of county rules and implement the tightest restrictions possible under state law.
Oviatt said that the 22 medical marijuana dispensaries that are currently legal under county ordinances would be allowed to phase out operations over one year.
All other businesses are illegal under an existing moratorium and would have to close immediately if a ban were implemented, she said.
And the county would make it stick.
“In the past we have had a complaint-driven enforcement,” Oviatt said.
Under the ban, the county would create a proactive enforcement effort aimed at closing the stores, she said.
THE REGULATION OPTION
Regulation is the other option for Kern County, Oviatt told the board.
Businesses would be kept one-half mile from sensitive uses like schools, daycares and other similar locations.
Rules would limit indoor cultivation to 2 million square feet countywide and the space for processing of the plant into oils, tinctures, edibles and other products to 500,000 square feet.
Outdoor cultivation would be limited to 150 acres total.
All products produced would be tested for pesticides and other contaminants then tracked through five testing businesses allowed in Kern County under the ordinance.
A maximum of 20 businesses would distribute finished products to the 40 shops allowed to sell cannabis in Kern County, Oviatt said.
Dispensaries, she said, would need to go through a public process to receive approval to operate and the public, their neighbors and any other concerned citizens would have a chance to come and discuss the proposed shop.
Fees on cannabis operations would fund county enforcement of the ordinance and provide grants to community organizations combating drug addiction, homelessness, mental health and other community problems that have links to marijuana, Oviatt said.
Allowing the businesses to come in would create 8,750 new jobs in Kern County with wages of between $15 and $22 an hour, she said.
SUPPORT FOR REGULATION
Attorney Gabriel Godinez urged the county to reconsider the one-half mile limitation on the placement of businesses in a regulatory scheme. The boundary should be closer to 1,500 feet, he said.
“We don’t want to get into the issue we had with Measure G,” he said.
That voter-approved measure was so restrictive on dispensary locations that it triggered a legal challenge that invalidated the rule and forced the county to do the environmental report that came before the board Tuesday.
He also asked the county how much it had spent on litigation trying to defend the county’s efforts to restrict or ban medical marijuana.
Resident T. J. Esposito urged supervisors to allow and regulate marijuana.
“An industry that is well-regulated requires minimal government intervention,” he said.
Good regulations, he argued, would make the community safer and be so fruitful to the county that it would need an extra room “just to count all the money.”
Resident Jordan Jarvis said public safety is first.
If Kern chooses a ban, he argued, it would be handing over control of the marijuana cultivation and supply chain to gangs and the mob.
“Besides,” he said, “our county doesn’t have money to enforce a ban.”
Ben Eilenberg with Industrial Partners Group said his company is looking to develop cannabis businesses in Kern County.
The county has a well developed agricultural industry and is a natural place to build.
He complimented the environmental review and said it offered an elegant solution to the problem of how to deal with commercial marijuana through regulation.
Protecting the public, and keeping children away from the drug, is a matter of strong, effective regulation, he said.
But there were voices that called for a complete ban.
Dennis Turner of Frazier Park said he is a high school teacher and his students are already talking about the availability of marijuana.
They are calling Frazier Park “Frazier Weed” and Lake of the Woods “Lake of the Weed.”
David Brust of Bakersfield Residents Against Pot Shops urged supervisors to remember that Proposition 64 - which legalized recreational marijuana - was opposed by a large majority of Kern County citizens.
He said there are already more than 70 illegal marijuana shops in the city of Bakersfield and they’ve shown that they have no regard for any rules that limit what they want to do.
No matter what rules the county institutes, those people will flout them, Brust argued.
QUESTIONS TO ANSWER
Oviatt said most of the questions and concerns raised during the hearing will be responded to in detail in the final version of the environmental impact report brought to the Kern County Planning Commission on Sept. 28 and the Kern County Board of Supervisors in October.
She said many of the issues being raised are questions the state of California will answer as it takes an aggressive regulatory stance on this new industry.
For example, Oviatt said, the state will not hand out a license to a felon and the state will be the one that digs into the criminal background of the corporation to make sure a felon isn’t involved in a marijuana business.
Supervisor David Couch asked whether the county, to minimize conflicts with the boundaries of the city of Bakersfield, could have an option that would mirror the city of Bakersfield’s stance on commercial cannabis in the city’s sphere of influence.
Oviatt said planners would report on that possibility and deliver a report developed with Sheriff Donny Youngblood’s help on crime near existing dispensary locations.
Supervisor Mike Maggard asked, in comparison to other communities, how big of a commercial industry the county is contemplating.
Oviatt told him that given Kern County’s size, the environmental report contemplates a small to medium industry.
NOT ON OUR OWN
Why would Kern be any more successful in regulating this industry than it is right now? Maggard asked.
Because, Oviatt said, the state is finally getting involved in regulating cannabis.
“Until now, we’ve been on our own,” Oviatt said. “For the past 18 years, the county has tried to manage this new industry with little help from the state or the courts.”
Everything changed with the passage of Proposition 64 in 2016 when voters approved recreational use of marijuana and required a state system of regulation to control commercial cannabis activities.
Now there will be three state agencies regulating marijuana, Oviatt said.
California, backed by a $1 billion tax, has the incentive and the resources to root out illegal use of marijuana, Oviatt said.
In addition, she said, there are organized business interests that want to come to Kern County who have taken the fight against illegal shops on their own dime in Los Angeles.
Maggard said he has heard strong discussions on both sides of the argument and he will need “a lot more” convincing that the county can properly regulate the commercial cannabis industry.
His greatest concern, he said, is the amount of crime that has gone on in and near dispensaries and the risk that places on the communities he represents.