The Cannabis Experiment
Six years ago, Humboldt county embarked on what many would consider an experiment in how to formally and legally take on cannabis cultivation. As for any experiment, considerable planning was invested in developing and updating ordinances and procedures that would not only support this newly sanctioned activity, but also would protect Humboldt’s highly valued environments, minimize social impacts, contribute to the general welfare, and be a responsible contributor to the economic sustainability. The County had no previous experience in regulating cannabis cultivation; in fact, no county anywhere had any such experience. Without the luxury of hindsight and lessons learned, social experiments and domestic enterprises may not get it right the first time through, or perhaps even the second time. As Humboldt’s cannabis enterprise and the County’s administrative oversight have unfolded, we have witnessed what works and what does not work, what should be added or strengthened, and what should be discarded. These experiences and lessons provide opportunities to re-think a new vision for how future cannabis cultivation can contribute to the overall well-being of the environment, the county, and the people. To achieve this vision, we submit, for the People’s approval, new principles and guidelines in the County’s General Plan that will begin to fix some of the problems, as well as provide new direction for future cannabis activities and oversight.
Humboldt’s New Reality
Laws governing a new cannabis culture
After cannabis was legalized in 2016, the county created an ordinance (CMMLOU), known as version 1.0 aimed at encouraging existing, typically small ‘Mom-and-Pop’, environmentally savvy growers to ‘come out’ and become legal. A second ordinance (CCLUO), known as version 2.0, and an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) were subsequently created to provide regulations for new cultivations and to identify environmental impacts and mitigations, as required by the state law mandating environmental protections, known as the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA. Since then, many have received permits for cannabis cultivation, many of which are newcomers hoping to take advantage of the ‘Humboldt’ brand name and its valuable resources. There are now over 1000 legally permitted operations, most of which are in stark contrast to the small-scale, organic ‘hippy’ farming, of previous decades. The newly emerging cannabis culture represents a more industrialized ‘mega-grow approach’, with heated and ventilated grow houses, 24/7 lights, extensive use of water, and loud generators.
Impacts on residents, landowners, the environment, and ecosystems
As voiced at most Planning Commission meetings, incursions of mega-grows into rural residential, agricultural, and woodland areas have been received with considerable anger and bitterness by the rural public. One reason for this is that the county’s ordinance 2.0 precludes most affected rural residents from being notified that a mega-grow would be setting up next door to them. Such disregard has been taken to be demeaning and disrespectful, leaving residents little if any recourse to complain, or to go through the pain of expensive and difficult litigation. Residents cite issues of health, safety, welfare, dangerous traffic, harassment by growers, and harm to the environment and natural beauty. Of particular concern has been diversion of stream and well water that takes critical water away from residents and ranchers, as well as from watersheds and ecosystems, where water deprivation impacts animal and plant habitats. Strong objections have been made about the constant night lights and generator noise that disrupt residents’ lives and that impact wildlife, including the Northern Spotted Owl.
Failure to follow state law
The County’s processes for evaluating environmental impacts of cannabis activities and for permitting cannabis operations have been flawed from the onset. The EIR used by the County to meet CEQA requirements considers the entire county as a single environment, ignoring the many diverse watersheds, microenvironments, climates, and unique ecosystems, all of which is contrary to the spirit, if not the letter of CEQA. In essence, the County is saying one EIR fits all’. Use of a single EIR has made it easy to permit operations without the appropriate protections to local environment and watersheds. As predicted, watershed carrying capacities have been exceeded beyond their limits; streams and rivers are drying up, in part through legal and illegal diversion of stream, spring, and well water for use in cannabis cultivation.
The county has not properly followed CEQA in other aspects of cannabis assessments and permitting. The EIR does not assess cumulative impacts, as is required by CEQA. CEQA defines cumulative impacts as
“—two or more individual effects which, when considered together, are considerable or which compound or increase other environmental impacts… The cumulative impact from several projects is the change in the environment which results from the incremental impact of the project when added to other closely related past, present, and reasonably foreseeable probable future projects.”.
The county’s EIR considers impacts individually, without regard to impacts of other grows nearby, of other grows projected to be approved, or of non cannabis activities with similar impacts. In the permitting approval process, the County has not provided the convincing and documentable evidence that “mitigation measures are fully enforceable”, or that Humboldt County, the Lead Agency, can ‘ensure’ that mitigation measures are implemented in accordance with the program as stipulated by CEQA.
Avoiding public scrutiny
The County has been able to by-pass other CEQA requirements by use of the ministerial approval process, whereby non-conditional permits (typically grows <10,000 sq ft.) are approved by the Planning Department. In doing so, the County further avoids public awareness of these new activities, as well as an opportunity to comment through the Planning Commission approval process. Without public scrutiny and eye witness testimony of neighbors as to violations and impacts on health, safety, and welfare, potentially significant environmental impacts can be allowed. Consequently, many of the required CEQA mandates, intended to ensure a process that rigorously addresses environmental protections, have not been followed.
Failure to enact safeguards
At Planning Commission meetings, the County has put forth recommendations to approve permits without required mitigations. Applications lacking safeguards that could detect fertilizer contamination of our rivers, protect Northern Spotted Owls, and ensure safe roadways, for example, have been pushed through by the County. Recently, the Commission referred cannabis issues regarding generators, roads, and wells to the Board of Supervisors for clarifications that would have stiffened requirements and likely reduced risks of environmental impacts. The Board’s decision to take no action shows its recalcitrance toward improving enforcement, as necessary to address the environmental and social problems created by cannabis cultivation. A further ethical problem lies in the perceived conflicts of interest of two members of the Board, as well as a Planning Commissioner.
Collateral economic impacts
The surge of these new mega-grow sites means they can now legally operate in full view throughout the county’s landscape, no longer needing to be hidden away in the bush and hinterland, and out of sight. Expansion of the now highly visible cannabis footprint will further discourage visitors who are drawn to our natural beauty. Incursions of industrial mega-grows impacts the county’s cherished tourism industry by fouling views of its scenic wonders and sending a message that we are not good stewards of our land, and do not really care about the quality of our own environment or the extraordinary natural beauty of the area. In essence, we have fouled our nest. It will be increasingly challenging to entice tourists to visit our redwoods, rivers, and beaches, if their view is cluttered with hoop huts and water tanks, and rivers are green with algae or actually dried up.
Limited enforcement capabilities
The County has assigned limited resources to enforce cannabis regulations. Only a few inspectors may be available for about 1000 permitted grows, as well as for non-cannabis projects. We are told most annual ‘inspections’ are performed in what the County refers to as ‘desk reviews’, where a grower will submit self-inspections and self-assessments to the County, which are then approved. Enforcement such as this is essentially no enforcement, serving only to encourage abuse and violations that likely will manifest in additional environmental harm.
To address these problems, and considering the various social, legal, and environmental aspects and issues, a ballot initiative has been prepared, and is in the process of submission to the people to place the measure on the June 2024 ballot. The initiative offers a new vision aimed at providing remedies for many of the significant problems we face with cannabis activities in Humboldt County. The initiative aims at limiting future cannabis cultivation, improving enforcement, and protecting the county’s precious environment as we move forward.
We believe the initiative will help cannabis farms be a better fit for Humboldt and better neighbors for us all.