A cannabis grower tends to his plants on his farm. REUTERS/Rory Carroll

County supervisors Wednesday voted 4-1 to seek more public feedback before approving any policies that would promote economic access and social equity in the cannabis industry in unincorporated communities.

The county won’t have any cannabis ordinance ready by June, board Chair Nathan Fletcher said.

“We need to slow this down so we get it right,” he added.

“The goal is to build a sustainable plan that makes economic access and equity foundational principles in this new industry,” Fletcher later said. “I was happy to support staff’s assessment that more time and resources be allocated to this process.”

County staff will have six months to collect input from various stakeholders, including community planning groups and residents. The board directed staff to review environmental and permitting-related issues, and to return in three months with a progress report.

Staff members will also clarify policy for five existing dispensaries affected by a 2017 county ban.

Unveiled in January, the cannabis policy overhaul includes:

  • 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.

As he did in January, Supervisor Jim Desmond voted no on the recommendations during Wednesday’s meeting.

Desmond said that with the COVID-19 pandemic, and concerns of mental health care and homelessness, it didn’t make sense that marijuana was a main priority for the board, and said he opposed making permitting easier.

“The only thing I support is giving more time to the sponsor groups and the public,” he said. “Everything else is pretty much ancillary and I’m against it.”

During a public comment period, many who called in to the virtual meeting took issue with any liberalizing of marijuana policy, saying it was harmful to young people and rural lifestyles, and could result in more crime.

A South Bay resident said while Supervisor Nora Vargas promised transparency, “this issue feels very rushed,” and urged outreach to not only residents, but drug addiction experts.

The caller became emotional as she described her own son’s experience with marijuana, which she said led to him suffering a psychotic break.

“Go home and look at your own children and see if this is the result you want,” she told the board. “My child is gone.”

Eileen Delaney, vice chair of the Fallbrook Community Planning Group, said she supported a longer environmental review. She also asked supervisors to carefully consider the implications of growing cannabis near other types of agriculture zones, in part due to odor and noise issues.

“Our goal is to continue to work with (county) staff, so we can ultimately have — even if we’re not thrilled with it — an ordinance that considers the lifestyle and character of our town,” Delaney said.

Several dispensary owners affected by the county’s 2017 ban said they needed a way to stay open past an April 2022 deadline that would force them to close.

Lincoln Fish, CEO of OutCo, which owns a licensed dispensary, said he and others are “bleeding badly right now” financially.

“We can’t wait a year or two for some real change,” Fish said.

Fish said the social ills that pot opponents predicted haven’t happened. However, “what has occurred is a huge explosion in the black market,” he added. “The previous (Board of Supervisors) turned a blind eye to that.”

Supervisor Joel Anderson — in whose district four of the five banned dispensaries are located — said the board has “a moral obligation to restore them to where they were.”

“We made a commitment to let these dispensaries operate within the law, and then we changed it,” Anderson said, referring to the 2017 ban.

Anderson also suggest that to ensure strong community input during a pandemic, it might be a good idea to let some rural groups meet in a socially distant manner, as their Internet connections might not handle Zoom meetings.

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