Maxwell residents split on commercial cannabis

Maxwell citizens gather at the American Legion Hall on March 14 to discuss whether the Colusa County Board of Supervisors should modifying its “no-weed” ordinance to allow commercial cannabis operations in the unincorporated areas of the county.

Susan Meeker & Brian Pearson

A lively discussion in Maxwell last Thursday reflected the deep divide between residents on whether marijuana cultivation, manufacturing, or retail sales should be allowed in the unincorporated areas of Colusa County.

Some wanted the Colusa County Board of Supervisors to duplicate what the cities of Colusa and Williams have done in creating a legal system for the production of cannabis, which would be subject to licensing, regulation, and taxation.

“It would bring in a lot of jobs,” said Tammy Dunlap, a proponent of regulated manufacturing, particularly cannabis (oils, edibles) used for medicinal purposes.

Dunlap believes the shift in marijuana acceptance could eventually relax even tough federal laws, which currently keep the cannabis industry under the veil of mystery as a “cash-only” industry, despite its legalization in California and other states.

The workshop at the American Legion Hall on March 14 was the fifth in the series the county is hosting in order to seek input from the public about whether the Board of Supervisors should modify the county’s ordinance to allow commercial cannabis operations. Those who did not attend the meeting can still take a survey online at the county’s website.

About a dozen Colusa County residents attended the workshop, one of the first not to attract out-of-county pot growers hoping the county will consider outdoor cultivation in the area’s rich farmland. Most vehemently opposed any softening of the county’s existing marijuana ban, echoing how Maxwell precincts voted on Proposition 64 in the November 2016 election.

Maxwell opposed the legalization of marijuana for recreational use by 60.37 percent to 39.63 percent. Colusa County, as a whole, opposed recreational use by 56.24 to 43.75.

Marion Mathis, a bellwether in the Maxwell community, said she would hate Colusa County officials to see marijuana production as the solution to public revenue problems.

“I don’t want to see it anywhere in the county,” Mathis said. “I see no reason to change the ban that we have in existence right now. We already have two areas in the county – Colusa and Williams – that are going to allow more than what the county allows at this current time. So there are already two pockets of this in the county that we can’t do anything about. It seems well within our view of what we want our community to look like to control the other parts of the county.”

Others argued that because marijuana is essentially everywhere in the community legally and illegally already, then the county should embrace regulated production as a way to push out illegal pot grows, many of which are harmful to the environment.

“Where I’m coming from is that (legal cannabis) kind of squeezes out what is happening in the hills,” Dunlap said. “When you start regulating it, you start getting these quality products. It sounds horrible, but it’s easier for people to go to a dispensary and know they are getting something that is not tainted or laced with things, and it’s already legal.”

But despite the argument by some that regulations drive down illegal operations, few accepted that growing pot curtails criminal activity, because it isn’t likely that all marijuana users would willingly pay the high price for regulated products.

Dixie LaGrande, a county resident in the Williams area, said that just since the California law went into effect Jan. 1, which permits limited growing and possession of cannabis for recreational use, illegal marijuana production in the residential areas of Williams has skyrocketed.

“Already there are houses that grow more than six plants,” LaGrande said. “The smell permeates the whole neighborhood already. People come and go. I wouldn’t say they are questionable characters, but let’s just say they are not families coming in and out. It’s legal, and already (the law) is being abused.”

LaGrande said she understands that local governments stand to make a lot of money off the cannabis industry, but said that doesn’t make it the right decision for Colusa County.

“What are we modeling for the children,” she asked. “Do we want them to grow up to work in the marijuana fields or the grow houses and make honey oil. I could see this working in a bigger town where there are more choices, but this is a rural community. We are all interconnected and we are all interdependent. We cannot be like the “not in my backyard” people of the Bay Area who want their marijuana at a cheap price or the very best kind, but not live with the consequences of where it’s actually grown or processed and the sociological impact on the community.”

Although marijuana has dominated the public discussions in the county thus far, little attention has been given to the possibly of Colusa County farmers growing hemp, a cousin to the THC-laden cannabis plant, used largely for industrial purposes such as clothing, fabrics, rope, and twine.

James Brian, of Delevan, said he would like to see hemp production develop in Colusa County as a commercial agriculture product.

Other concerns that came out at the Maxwell meeting were water and environmental factors, and fear that Colusa County, if the ban is lifted, could become the next Calaveras County, where legal cannabis has reigned as the top industry for two years. However, a newly reconfigured Calaveras County Board of Supervisors, who ran for election in 2016 on an anti-marijuana campaign, reversed course and banned commercial pot operations, giving the growers three months to wind down operations.

According to news reports, Calaveras County has collected about $7 million in fees and taxes from about 200 legal growers since 2016, while approximately 1,000 illegal farms operated in the county during the same time period, which marijuana opponents said damaged the environment.

Like Colusa County, Calaveras residents are deeply divided on the marijuana issue, reports said, and legal growers are expected to file lawsuits against the county.

Ben Ritchie, principal with De Novo Planning Group – which is facilitating the community cannabis meetings for the Colusa County Board of Supervisors – led the meeting in Arbuckle last week.

Moral issues, potential impacts to federally-funded programs highlight concerns raised in Arbuckle

Residents at last week’s community meeting in Arbuckle shared similar comments and concerns to those in Maxwell the following day, ranging from moral issues surrounding cannabis to what impact – if any – a regulated, legal industry would have upon illegal growers in the county.

Unlike the meeting in Maxwell, however, there was no clear indication at the Arbuckle meeting as to what aspects of the commercial cannabis industry, if any, residents would be open to – although at one resident expressed interest in potentially opening a testing facility in unincorporated Colusa County.

Like Maxwell, there was some discussion regarding the impact a regulated industry would have on illegal grows in the county. Some noted that the rural nature of Colusa County made it almost impossible for law enforcement to regulate illegal grows, which they said were more concerning than their legal counterparts. While they noted that the argument could be made that establishing regulations for the legal cannabis industry in Colusa County would help tamp down illegal grows, excessive or top-heavy regulation of legal cannabis operations may actually discourage growers from entering the legal market.

Arbuckle resident George Green said that he had been led to believe that the majority of growers in the state had elected not to seek state licensing, but rather to continue growing illegally.

Pointing to the current political standoff between the State of California and the federal government on the issue of immigration, Green also expressed concerns over potential repercussions from allowing commercial cannabis in Colusa County, particularly when it comes to the Federal Water Project.

“We are about to embark on a very unknown territory, as far as immigration, with the State of California and the federal government. We don’t know where that’s gonna lead, but we don’t have the authority to determine, either,” Green said. “There are no assurances, at all, that we’re not going to head down the same path with marijuana approved at the state level, but not the federal level. And we have no assurances that won’t impact things like Federal Water Project, and other federal support that our state depends on, that could be a casualty. If we were to lose federal project water in areas of California that legalize cultivation of marijuana, it would be devastating to the economy of the entire state.”