The Kern County Board of Supervisors will soon consider a recommendation that could bring medical cannabis dispensaries back to unincorporated county areas.
At Tuesday’s board meeting, the Planning and Natural Resources Department is scheduled to recommend that supervisors direct county staff to draft a medical marijuana ordinance that would be placed on the March 3, 2020, ballot.
The ordinance would be crafted as an alternative to a community-led voter initiative that has already qualified for the ballot. In September, medical marijuana advocates David Abbasi and Cecilia Latu submitted the initiative that would allow any dispensary that was open before Jan. 1, 2018, to reopen, essentially overturning a ban on medical marijuana dispensaries in unincorporated Kern County that fully went into effect May 24.
Abbasi said at the time the initiative collected about 17,000 signatures from county residents, which allowed it to qualify.
In a letter to supervisors provided in the agenda for Tuesday’s meeting, the Planning Department said Abbasi and Latu’s initiative would allow too many dispensaries to open within the county relative to the county's population.
“It is essentially a way for all of the dispensaries that have been closed down in the last 10 years to automatically reopen,” Planning Director Lorelei Oviatt said in a phone interview with The Californian.
The letter said Abbasi and Latu’s initiative would allow for more than 60 dispensaries to reopen. Oviatt noted that the initiative allowed for no public input and no additional regulation.
In its letter, the Planning Department estimated that a more “appropriate” number of dispensaries would be between 20 and 30, although the report recommended placing no arbitrary limit on the amount.
Abbasi disputed the Planning Department's characterization of his ballot measure, saying about 20 dispensaries would likely return if it passed.
"We have a very well-thought-out ballot measure that was drafted by a professional law firm," he said, adding that dispensaries would have to meet zoning requirements and provide proof that they were legally operating in order to receive a permit.
Supervisor Zack Scrivner made the initial referral to the Planning Department on May 21 to provide a status update on dispensary closures and consider alternatives to the Abbasi and Latu initiative.
Scrivner did not immediately return a request for comment on Friday.
Although consumption remains legal statewide, supervisors voted to ban local sales of marijuana products in October 2017, allowing about 30 medical dispensaries to remain open until May 24 to recoup business costs.
The new ordinance would change course for the county.
The board letter noted that county staffers have consistently received public comments, as well as supervisors’ concerns, for the patients who use medical cannabis.
“Given the feedback that we’ve gotten from the community, it seems appropriate to have the board consider putting an alternative initiative on the ballot and letting the voters decide,” Oviatt said.
The proposed ordinance would include 1,000-foot setbacks from schools, public parks, libraries and other areas where families tend to gather, as well as city limits.
A tax of $50 for each $1,000 of gross income revenue would also be part of the proposal, according to the letter, and dispensaries would need to obtain a state license.
A public comment period would be provided during a hearing on the ordinance if supervisors approve the recommendation on Tuesday.
The Planning Department said supervisors should wait no later than September before holding the hearing on placing the new ordinance on the ballot.
The final date an item may be placed on the March ballot is Nov. 19, the letter said.