Cannabis farmers seek legal way to grow

San Diego County has farmers who have worked in the region’s rural residential and commercial agricultural zones for generations. Many of these residents would like to continue this tradition — not by growing avocados or tomatoes — but by lawfully growing cannabis and hemp on their existing properties.

This may prove difficult given that upcoming actions by the county Board of Supervisors may ban local cultivation altogether or relegate it solely to medical dispensaries. Either of these actions would leave independent farm-to-market businesses literally out in the weeds.

Recently, California enacted two laws that chart a legal path forward for outdoor commercial cannabis farming — with the state slated to begin issuing licenses in January 2018.

Under these laws — the Medical Cannabis Regulation and Safety Act, enacted in 2015 and the Adult Use of Marijuana Act, approved by voters in November — farms that receive zoning approval from local jurisdictions can then apply for a state license.

Those without local permits will have to leave their land untilled.

The problem is that navigating this politically charged process is far from clear — and, as of today, no local communities have allowed outdoor cannabis farms to take root.

Meanwhile, other cities and counties across California are scrambling to integrate farming as part of the state’s $2 billion-a-year cannabis industry.

It makes sense; farms tend to be discreet, cleanly run operations that have a business-to-business sales model — meaning no sales to the general public. In addition, this low-impact industry stands to generate tens of millions of dollars for local communities in the form of new state and local taxes.

Speaking for many farmers in San Diego County, we would like to see our region move in this direction as well. To be sure, farmers are in business to earn a profit, but we also see benefits for all San Diego County residents.

Today, a strong economic engine is coming online in California — one that will fuel new job growth and bolster existing business services and products that cater to the agricultural sector.

According to New Frontier — a cannabis research firm based in Washington, D.C. — the state’s cannabis sales are expected to grow to $6.4 billion by the year 2020. This means California will potentially collect more than $1 billion in annual tax and licensing revenues, much of which is to be distributed to local jurisdictions.

Communities that tap into this engine will reap huge benefits in terms of these tax dollars — for local general funds and additional dollars earmarked for public safety services such as police and fire departments.

However, under the law, jurisdictions that bar cannabis cultivation will receive far less in tax revenue from the state — and they will have no cannabis farms in their jurisdictions to tax at all.

So there is a lot at stake — too much for local farmers to remain silent.

That’s why many of us recently formed the Southern California Responsible Growers Council, or SCRGC. We are a member-based association created to advocate for common-sense public and land-use policies in San Diego County and across the region.

Our goals are to protect small farms, reducing black-market activity and ending trespass-grows on public lands. We also intend to work with local public health and safety experts to safeguard communities and the environment.

To accomplish this, we are eager to work with local communities to develop a practical framework that regulates outdoor cannabis farms in a way that’s sustainable in the long run.

Sustainably means ensuring cannabis is grown where it makes sense and in a manner that doesn’t impact surrounding neighbors. It means running clean and secure farms, employing local experts to address public health and safety concerns.

Currently, some jurisdictions have relegated cannabis farming to industrial zones, in artificially lit warehouses. While this model works for some growers, many more are hoping to capitalize on the region’s bountiful sunlight and open agricultural space.

We’re not naïve. Obviously, the issue of legalized cannabis is a contentious one.

It doesn’t have to be.

There’s no reason why communities can’t develop procedures and land-use policies that give communities the peace of mind they deserve, while reaping the benefits of this fledgling economic engine. Our goal is to do just that.

We just need freedom to grow.

Wagner is a land-use policy expert who serves as executive director of the Southern California Responsible Growers Council. Anderson serves as president of the SCRGC and is recognized statewide as an industry expert. 

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