Cannabis plants
Cannabis plants. Photo via Pixabay

The San Diego County Board of Supervisors Wednesday voted 4-1 for a set of policies intended to improve economic access and social equity in the cannabis industry.

The vote, with Supervisor Jim Desmond opposed, came after a lengthy public hearing and discussion among board members.

Board Chairman Nathan Fletcher, who proposed multiple ordinance changes with colleague Nora Vargas, described the action as “a strong step forward.”

The marijuana policy overhaul, in the form of multiple ordinances, will be developed over the next six months and include community input before any final approval by the board, according to Fletcher’s office.

The policies were drafted with the intent to expand farming, manufacturing, and retail opportunities and create jobs in the unincorporated areas of the county.

“We know that many communities have been devastated by the war on drugs and disproportionately impacted by the criminal justice system. We seek to undo these past wrongs by centering social justice at the core of our cannabis approach,” Fletcher said before Wednesday’s meeting.

“Right now, we have unlicensed operations with potentially unsafe products being sold in the unincorporated area. This harms the five operators who are currently operating in the unincorporated area, as well as those who are operating legally elsewhere in our region,” he added.

The policies include:

  • Putting social equity at the center of the cannabis permitting program.
  •  Agricultural, farming, retail, manufacturing business expansion.
  •  Creating opportunities for people with past cannabis convictions and from communities impacted by the war on drugs to apply for permits.
  • Creating good-paying jobs through labor peace agreements.
  • No more unpermitted and potentially unsafe cannabis sales and operations.
  • Mandatory distances from schools, places of worship and other places children and families gather.
  • New code enforcement teams to ensure compliance. The new ordinances will also include a labor agreement for facilities with more than 10 employees, $500,000 for aggressive law enforcement of illegal shops and adding setbacks of up to 1,000 from sensitive areas, including schools.

Supervisor Terra Lawson-Remer said reforming county policies on marijuana dispensaries can create jobs, and a whole new stream of revenue.

“We want a well-regulated market that can be held accountable,” she said. “We must shutter illegal cannabis operations and keep the product away from minors, just as we do with alcohol and cigarettes.”

Voting no, Desmond said that now was not the time to make drugs that can cause physical and mental impairment more accessible. He also compared it to “pouring gasoline” on two of the county’s major problems, mental illness and homelessness.

Desmond faulted the proposal far not focusing on drug prevention and treatment, or restricting underage access to marijuana. When California voters legalized marijuana usage in 2016, “they also allowed for local jurisdiction on distributing and cultivation,” Desmond said.

Many cities with dispensaries “have more restrictions than what’s being proposed here today,” he added.

Desmond said he was very surprised that the policy would allow for the sale of THC vaping cartridge and edibles, along with onsite consumption of cannabis products at specific facilities and at permitted events.

“That was used as argument to shut down vaping stores,” Desmond said, referring to the board’s January 2020 approval of a one-year ban on liquid vaping products.

It was a good idea to leave the county’s standing ordinances in place until new ones are passed, he said, or “it’s gonna be the Wild West out there.”

Fletcher countered that any policy changes were still months away from formal approval, and that there will be rules to ensure that schools and other family friendly sites are protected.

“Our proposal today is to stop youth access,” Fletcher said.

He also criticized Desmond for advocating treatment, but voting against a needle exchange program during Tuesday’s board meeting.

As for any on-site consumption, that “sounds a lot like a restaurant,” said Fletcher, adding that he hopes Desmond won’t propose banning on-site consumption of alcohol. Desmond responded he didn’t think it was possible to compare pot dispensaries with vaping shops.

Before voting, supervisors listened to members of the public for nearly two hours. While many echoed Fletcher’s belief that a policy overhaul will offer numerous benefits, including racial justice, others warned the county would send the wrong message by allowing dispensaries, which would lead to increased teen drug abuse and public safety problems.

One proponent, Laura Wilkinson of Caligrown, said she has witnessed how legalization has benefited the state of Oregon economically. She added that Oklahoma, hardly a bastion of progressive policies, has licensed over 200 dispensaries, “and it has not collapsed.”

K.C. Strang of the San Marcos Prevention Coalition said he was dismayed that board members are supporting this. Teens are not “living well with easy access to marijuana,” Strang said, referring to Live Well San Diego, the county’s health initiative.

Representatives from community planning groups criticized the proposal and said they hadn’t been properly consulted.

“The idea of proposing this ordinance is ludicrous,” said Jack Wood, chairman of the Fallbrook Community Planning Group. Wood said Fallbrook is now undergoing a revitalization, and marijuana shops will destroy efforts “to make this community a place people want to visit.”

The proposal by Fletcher and Vargas has received support from numerous groups, including the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce.

The San Diego County Farm Bureau “supports the legalization of cultivation of cannabis in the unincorporated community because this is an agricultural commodity that we need market access to,” said Hannah Gbeh, executive director of the bureau. “Our agricultural community is a specialty crop community. We are always doing more with less, growing the highest value dollar crops available. We need market access to the cannabis market and we need a legal structured framework so our growing community can access this commodity.”

Fletcher proposed a similar policy in 2020, but it failed to get the support of his conservative colleagues. However, a new political makeup of the board could change the end result.

The policies are part of Fletcher’s “Framework for the Future of San Diego County” plans, which are intended to prioritize communities and populations in San Diego that have been historically left behind.

“Not only have marginalized communities been disproportionately targeted by the war on drugs; they have also been locked out of accessing avenues to generational wealth within the cannabis industry,” said Armand King, COO of Paving Great Futures, a local nonprofit with the mission of providing work experience programs to “misguided young people” to help them transform into community leaders.

“We consider this social equity program to be a form of recognition and restitution for San Diego’s underserved communities. Our country and our community have perpetuated unjust systems for too long, and this is an opportunity for us to make a tangible and lasting change in our county,” King said.

Updated at 6:28 p.m. Jan. 27, 2021