San Diego County moves toward lifting cannabis ban

Nathan Fletcher
San Diego County Board of Supervisors Chair Nathan Fletcher spoke about the proposed new cannabis ordinance at the Jan. 27 meeting.
(Karen Billing)

The San Diego County Board of Supervisors is revisiting its approach to cannabis businesses, voting 4-1 to start the process to craft a regulatory framework for the industry. Brought forward by Chair Nathan Fletcher and Vice Chair Nora Vargas, Fletcher said the new policy advances social equity, racial justice and economic opportunities.

“I think it’s vitally important in the unincorporated area that we have a safe, regulated and legal cannabis system,” Fletcher said.

On Jan. 27, the board directed staff to develop zoning ordinances that allow for cannabis retail, cultivation, manufacturing, distribution and testing, lifting the existing ban against medical marijuana collectives and allowing for onsite consumption of cannabis products. The social equity piece of the proposed ordinance prioritizes communities that historically have been disproportionately affected by the war on drugs.

Staff will report back in 90 days with an update: “This is not a final adoption of the ordinance,” Fletcher clarified. “It is a vote to begin the ordinance development process.”

Currently, there no pathway for adult-use cannabis access in the unincorporated area and without any process for obtaining a permit, illegal and unlicensed dispensaries have proliferated. According to the staff report, San Diego County Sheriff’s Department has been engaged in a continuing cycle of shutting down various illegal storefronts, only for the same business to re-open the following week.

The former board of supervisors banned cannabis facilities within unincorporated areas of the county in 2017 and ordered the five existing medical cannabis facilities to close by 2022. In August 2020, Fletcher had also proposed allowing cannabis businesses to operate in the unincorporated area but his motion did not receive a second.

With three new supervisors on board, Fletcher found support to move ahead.

“It’s pretty clear that the safe and responsible sale of cannabis has been the will of voters for years and until now county policies have been a roadblock to enacting those wishes,” District 3 Supervisor Terra Lawson-Remer said.

Lawson-Remer supported beginning a process to establish a program that allows legitimate businesses to operate in a well-regulated market, creating new jobs and a tax revenue stream for the county.

Supervisor Jim Desmond was the sole vote against moving forward due to concerns about youth access and that it would exacerbate the county’s concern about homelessness and behavioral health issues.

“Now is not the time to make physically and mentally impairing drugs more accessible,” Desmond said. “This is like pouring gasoline on the current crisis of behavioral health and homelessness.”

Marijuana dispensaries, cultivating and manufacturing facilities have been legal in the City of San Diego since 2017. Locally, the city of Del Mar has a prohibition on marijuana-related businesses and in Solana Beach, a measure to permit and regulate marijuana businesses on the ballot last November failed with 61.7% voting against it.

A similar 2020 measure in the city of Encinitas to create marijuana commercial zoning and regulation passed with 51% of the voters in favor.

At the Jan. 27 meeting, the supervisors received 157 written comments and heard from 76 speakers during the hours-long public comment portion of the meeting.

Supporters viewed the board’s action as a “sensible path forward,” expanding the legal program to ensure safe access and helping to eradicate the black market.

“The four-year ban experiment has failed, the black market has proven to thrive,” said Ren Bodin, who operates Jaxx Cannabis, a medical marijuana dispensary in Ramona. He noted that under a legal process, safeguards for permitted facilities include security officers, security cameras and strict identification and verification policies mandated by the state and the sheriff’s department, ensuring that only eligible adults get access to legal and tested cannabis.

Hannah Gbeh, executive director of the San Diego County Farm Bureau, offered her support on behalf of farmers who want to grow cannabis in the county.

“Cannabis is the most highly-regulated agricultural commodity in the state of California,” Gbeh said. “We strongly encourage the county to establish legal, local, regulatory framework so our local agricultural community can maintain economic viability by remaining competitive.”

Those who were opposed cited concerns about youth access, public safety, property values, urban blight and fire threat. Some questioned why the supervisors would support something that could negatively affect public health and wellness during a global pandemic.

There were also concerns about an increase in impaired driving by allowing on-site cannabis consumption in unincorporated areas that have a lack of public transit, “putting stoned drivers on our windy roads,” Julian resident Jean Duffy said.

“This is not a social equity issue, we aren’t talking about medicine, we are talking about the commercialization of an addictive and therefore highly profitable substance,” Duffy said.

Douglas Dill, chair of the San Dieguito Community Planning Group, said that land use planning must be considered to mitigate negative impacts of cannabis businesses in the rural, unincorporated areas. He suggested greater setback distances to protect existing uses such as churches, parks, playgrounds, residential zones and a permitting process that allows for local planning group review and input.

Fletcher said that there will be stakeholder outreach and engagement as they develop the ordinance and planning groups will have the opportunity to be heard. Public input will help shape components such as the permitting program and onsite consumption.

Staff has been asked to develop zoning ordinances for where cannabis businesses would be allowed, including analyzing setbacks of 600 to 1,000 feet from any “sensitive use” as defined by California Code of Regulations, which includes schools, daycare centers or youth centers.

In the city of San Diego, cannabis outlets and production facilities must be located 1,000 feet from parks, churches, childcare centers, playgrounds, libraries, minor-oriented facilities, residential care facilities and schools; and 100 feet from residential zones.

During public comment, Jim Whalen, a member of the City of San Diego Planning Commission, said from his experience reviewing city applications he has learned what works and doesn’t work and offered his support. He encouraged the county to consider how locations are selected, how licensees are vetted and the associated taxes, making sure that the taxes don’t get so high that the black market continues.

Per the supervisor’s direction, staff will bring in an expert to research cannabis taxation opportunities and provide recommendations.

As part of the motion to support, Supervisor Joel Anderson added $500,000 to ensure “immediate and aggressive” enforcement of illegal and unlicensed dispensaries, labs or any related facilities. He said in Lakeside, an illegal operation was in place two doors down from a school and they were so emboldened that they had a sign spinner out front. He said it took two weeks for it to be shut down.

The board supported his request that staff analyze ongoing enforcement options: “We really need to protect communities against those that violate the law,” Anderson said.