Voters in Nevada County will head to the polls Tuesday to vote on a controversial ballot measure on outdoor marijuana cultivation.
Measure W would reinforce the county’s current ban on outdoor marijuana grows and add restrictions to indoor growing.
The measure has polarized residents of this largely rural county of about 100,000 people. Debates and public forums have been emotionally charged and there have been accusations of sign stealing.
On one hand, supporters say the measure is the best way to stop the proliferation of large pot farms that are harming the environment and negatively impacting quality of life. Supporters also contend the new rules would still allow for growing medical marijuana indoors.
On the other hand, opponents say a ban would do little to stop outdoor cultivation, but instead will push illegal growers toward the ‘black market’ and could potentially limit patients’ legal access to medicinal marijuana.
The battle around Measure W has been called a culture clash of sorts that could be a sign of battles to come throughout California as the state grapples with creating regulatory frameworks for the burgeoning marijuana industry, while still allowing some local control for counties.
An ordinance, which was approved by the county board of supervisors early 2016, already bans outdoor cultivation and places restrictions on indoor growing. Legitimate indoor grows are permitted for a maximum of 12 plants. However, the plants must be housed in specific types of structures, with plumbing and specific electrical systems.
If voters reject Measure W, the board of supervisors says they would go back to the drawing board. But there is no specific requirement for the board to repeal the ban and no details on what would be changed if Measure W fails.
Public Safety, Nuisance, Law Enforcement Issues
Those who support the current ban and the new restrictions in Measure W, says it’s a necessary step to stop a serious problem in the county.
Supervisor Hank Weston says the problem can be traced to an ordinance passed in 2012, when the county allowed outdoor grows, limiting the number of plants per square footage. But that law resulted in the explosion of massive and destructive pot farms. The impact on neighborhoods and the environment has been disastrous, says Weston.
“It destroys hilltops, animals die [because farmers put out poison], they are using pesticides and fertilizers to grow their crop and that gets into the waterways,” Weston says.
The county’s sheriff, Keith Royal, was instrumental in crafting the 2016 ban and is an outspoken proponent of Measure W. He says after 2012, nobody played by the rules.
“We realized, because we see some of the money in some of these gardens and some of these investigations, [that] it’s about money and not about medicine,” Royal says.
Both say they believe most of the county's marijuana products are being trafficked to states where California-grown pot can fetch higher prices.
Meanwhile, officials are receiving hundreds of complaints from residents, 330 in 2015, about odor, traffic and the sheer volume of crops. Weston and Royal are especially concerned about farms using butane cans for producing honey oil, an extract of marijuana that causes psychotropic effects.
Business And Regulation
Jonathan Collier, with the California Growers Association in Nevada County, agrees with one part of Weston and Royal’s arguments -- that the county must have the ability to stop large and destructive farms.
But he says the ordinance unfairly punishes small cultivators who are playing by the rules. He believes that bans simply don’t work.
“Basically [the ordinance is] a repeat of prohibition and prohibition is a failed policy,” Collier says. “We can’t say, ‘we’re going to ban this and automatically, miraculously, it’s going to disappear,’”
Instead, Collier says the county should use regulation to help separate the good actors from the bad ones.
For example, putting in place new licensing and permitting rules to give cultivators a pathway to legitimate businesses. Legalizing the industry would allow growers to pay taxes and to abide by regulations like other farmers, Collier says.
“You regulate it, you treat it as a business, and you begin to do the same things as any high impact industry,” he says.
Medical Marijuana And Access
Another group with a stake in the outcome of Measure W is advocates for patients who use medical marijuana.
Forrest Hurd’s son suffers from a disease that causes seizures. Hurd says his family depends on special tinctures from cannabis plants to help with his son’s condition. A ban on outdoor cultivation would limit his ability to access this medicine, he says.
“They stripped the last legal rights of medical patients,” Hurd says. “These last remnants of medical rights …. affect critically ill people, some of the them are children.”
Hurd says his son’s life depends on medicine produced from cannabis plants grown in Nevada County. Because of the ban, Hurd says his trusted network of cultivators (who grow outdoors) are now unable to provide his son’s medicine.
“It’s a long, arduous, expensive process; what they’ve done is stop that process in the beginning,” he says. “Now we’re not growing anything, there's no medicine to be made out of.”
When asked about patient access to medical marijuana, Royal says the ordinance’s allowance of up to 12 plants, grown indoors, is enough for patients in need of cannabis.
Hurd disagrees. He says the indoor growing rules are too restrictive.
A Culture Clash
The Hurds’ story is one reason that the fight around Measure W has become an emotional one.
But Sacramento Bee Reporter Peter Hecht says the disagreements have been brewing for years because of changing demographics. In the 1960s and 1970s, the region saw an eclectic mix of spiritualists, free thinkers and “back-to-the-landers” move into the area.
Today, urban retirees are also finding a home in the county. At the same time, the area has become a prime location for large-scale pot farms and growers who have the intent of selling and trafficking marijuana outside of the state.
"So in one level, this county has long had a tolerance and acceptance of marijuana growing … it's part of its culture,” Hecht says during an interview on Insight With Beth Ruyak. “On the other hand, there is a revolt against that. It is a question of scale. It's a question of compatibility with neighborhoods and communities.”
Hecht anticipates more fights to come as California works toward state regulations that would allow for licensing and permitting within the marijuana industry.
“[It] shows there's going to be a lot of turbulence and friction for a long time,” Hecht says. “We're going to have a rogue marijuana economy for a long time. As long as there are different rules for different states, we are entering a multi-year, multi-decade process.”
Along with Nevada County, Placer, Yuba and Sacramento counties all have marijuana-related measures on Tuesday’s ballot.