marijuana plant
A marijuana plant. Times of San Diego photo

The San Diego County Board of Supervisors voted 3-1 Wednesday to take an early step toward placing a marijuana business tax proposal on the November ballot.

The board approved a draft resolution calling for a 75-word ballot question, and arguments for and against the measure, along with a fiscal impact.

The resolution will still need formal board approval during its June 28 regular meeting.

If passed by voters, the measure would affect marijuana businesses only in the county’s unincorporated areas.

Supervisors Joel Anderson, Nathan Fletcher and Terra Lawson-Remer voted yes, while Jim Desmond was opposed.

Board Vice Chair Nora Vargas was attending a National Association of Counties conference and absent from Wednesday’s meeting.

Supervisors also voted 3-1 to receive a report by the HdL Companies on cannabis cultivation taxes.

Fletcher, the board chairman, said Wednesday’s action was “another step in the progress of a safe, legal cannabis regulation.”

He added that when the board meets on June 28, it will consider other options, including recommendations for public health outreach and youth drug prevention efforts.

“We’ll have some tough decisions to make,” said Fletcher, who also suggested a workshop to review options.

The agenda item was a holdover from Tuesday’s meeting, which ended at 5 p.m. because of a previously scheduled event outside the County Administration Building.

A socially equitable cannabis policy was first proposed early last year. Officials say goals include possibly eliminating the black market and addressing how anti-drug policies impacted low-income and minority communities.

Five marijuana operations are currently allowed to operate within the county. Three are located in Ramona, while the other two are in unincorporated El Cajon and Escondido. Since that time, supervisors have also approved increased law enforcement efforts to crack down on illegal pot operations.

Explaining his vote Wednesday, Desmond said he has no quarrel with adults using legal marijuana for medical or recreational purposes, but also has “to look at how society has been going lately,” given the higher number of overdose cases and drug-related suicides.

He added that feedback shows many people don’t want marijuana dispensaries or smoking lounges in their communities.

Desmond said he would prefer that any tax revenues from the cannabis industry stay in unincorporated regions, but that may not be possible. He also expressed support for using revenues on socially beneficial needs such as better mental health care, affordable housing and child safety.

“That’s where we should be putting our focus now,” Desmond added.

In a related action Wednesday, the board voted 4-0 to advance a proposal by Anderson for 16 enhancement measures, including restrictions on where operations are allowed, prohibiting billboards advertising cannabis, determining health risks and boosting law enforcement efforts against illegal dispensaries.

Anderson said his proposal “will ensure that our unincorporated communities will flourish alongside the legal cannabis industry.”

If supervisors vote in favor, certain recommendations would be added to an environmental impact report, while other recommendations would be used for research purposes or require a cost analysis.

Anderson said that although he never supported legalizing marijuana, California voters did in 2016.

Rural community character is important, Anderson said, adding, “We don’t want a Las Vegas-style facility moving in.”

Fletcher and Lawson-Remer were generally supportive of Anderson’s proposal, while Desmond said it would have a positive impact in the unincorporated region.

During two public comment periods, those in favor of expanding marijuana businesses (including industry representatives) said a ballot measure was a good first step.

Virginia Casey of Blue Water Government Affairs, representing five pot shops, said she supports further research and community engagement.

“We have an opportunity to incorporate lessons learned in other cities,” Casey said.

She suggested that the board should make sure a wide variety of stakeholders — including Black and Latino community representatives, drug prevention advocates and the Farm Bureau — are involved in crafting policies that protect vulnerable residents.

Opponents, many of them anti-drug activists or educators, said any expansion was a bad idea but also praised Anderson’s enhancement measures.

Becky Rapp said she appreciated Anderson’s suggestions, but said the county “wouldn’t be in this situation” if Anderson had not voted to advance the original cannabis equity policy in the first place.

Rapp, a strong critic of expanding marijuana businesses, said the county should ban any billboard advertising for cannabis products, just as state law does.

Rapp added that pot consumption lounges should be located in cities, not rural communities.

Updated at 4:41 p.m. June 15, 2022

City News Service contributed to this article.