Rushing Pot Ordinance a Bad Idea

We could not agree more with the Times-Standard (“Get ready for legalization, or get ready to lose”) that it is high time for Humboldt to address the impacts of its marijuana industry through locally appropriate regulation. We are heartened by cannabis cultivators speaking out about serious damage to our rivers, forests, fish, and wildlife, and advocating to bring producers out of the shadows. In our view, however, the campaign by California Cannabis Voice – Humboldt (CCVH) to force Humboldt County to accept its preferred version of a cultivation ordinance is counterproductive. If successful, it would lead to harms above and beyond those most North Coast citizens already find unacceptable.

In its current form, the CCVH proposal would exacerbate the Green Rush, establishing a right to grow a ton of weed or more a year on every parcel larger than 40 acres across Humboldt County. Far from reining in the Green Rush, this scheme would ignite another wave of impacts to our watersheds and further fragment forestland that has been impacted by decades of irresponsible logging. Iconic, imperiled species like coho salmon, already nearly extinct in the Mattole and in dangerous decline in the South Fork Eel River, desperately need impacts like water diversions and pollution reduced.

As well, the CCVH proposal fails to bring the bad actors causing the greatest harms into the sunlight. Instead, it calls only for granting permits to those who comply with existing environmental laws. Given Humboldt’s long experience of law enforcement’s inability to prevent harms from illegal operations, and our recent history of rising harms associated with the Green Rush, it is hardly unreasonable to ask that the industry clean up its messes before we allow exponential growth in marijuana operations and risk even more impacts to our forests and watersheds.

Worse, by advancing their proposed ordinance as an initiative, CCVH would make it nearly impossible to fix its flaws. Once CCVH submits a petition bearing the signatures of about 3,000 registered voters, the Board of Supervisors cannot change even a period in the proposal: they must either adopt it as written, or put the question to an expensive special election, where a majority of those voting would decide the question. Only another initiative and election could ever change any detail of the new ordinance.

The initiative process would also sidestep the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), one of our best tools for reducing unnecessary environmental harms. If precisely the same proposal were to come from the Board of Supervisors, CEQA would require consideration of impacts, alternatives, and mitigations necessary to reduce harm to protected species, downstream residents, and resources at risk. Under an August 2014 ruling by the California Supreme Court, however, ordinances advanced by initiative are entirely exempt from CEQA review.

There are other possible paths to a well-written ordinance. Through a truly open, public process, we can work to develop a regulatory framework that reflects the legitimate concerns not only of growers and environmentalists, but of public health advocates, law enforcement, and the agencies that would be charged with making regulations work on the ground. Above all, such an effort should set reasonable limits on the size and number of operations; clarify the areas suitable for marijuana cultivation; and ensure sustainable funding for necessary enforcement.

We believe such an ordinance should support smaller-scale, environmentally-sensitive operations. Just for example, a one-thousand square foot grow can produce something in the neighborhood of a hundred pounds of finished product. If such an operation were to follow current laws and reasonable best management practices, including storing winter water and stopping summer diversions, we believe most Humboldt citizens could support it. If permit holders want to grow more, and can work with their neighbors to eliminate summer water diversions and winter sediment discharges, we believe there’s a good argument for increasing the scale of permitted grows in watersheds where recovery is really underway.

No system of regulation will work if a critical mass of current growers aren’t willing to become legitimate businesses. But neither should the cannabis industry be allowed to write its own rules. These questions are far too important to be addressed by anything less than a truly open, democratic and publicly accountable process.

Humboldt has an opportunity to create a well-crafted ordinance that protects our critically important natural resources and promotes a local industry that could be ecologically, socially, and economically sustainable. But that opportunity may be squandered by CCVH’s aggressive attempt to legitimize, and to expand, the Green Rush.


Dan Ehresman, Northcoast Environmental Center

Natalynne DeLapp, Environmental Protection Information Center

Jennifer Kalt, Humboldt Baykeeper

Larry Glass, Safe Alternatives for our Forest Environment

Scott Greacen, Friends of the Eel River

Originally published in the Eureka Times Standard  in response to the editorial (“Get ready for legalization, or get ready to lose”)