Tuesday, December 19, 2023

Judge Rules Voters Should Decide Cannabis Initiative

Posted By on Tue, Dec 19, 2023 at 11:57 AM

Voters will get to decide the fate of the Humboldt Cannabis Reform Initiative in March, a superior court judge has ruled.

In a five-page ruling filed last week, Humboldt County Superior Court Judge Timothy Canning rejected arguments put forward by the Humboldt County Growers Alliance (HCGA) and seven cannabis farmers that proponents of Measure A misled voters while gathering signatures to qualify the initiative for the ballot and failed to provide them with enough supporting information.

“To be clear, the court makes no findings on the merits of Measure A, as that is for the voters to decide,” Canning wrote in his ruling. “But the court does find there is in an insufficient showing of objectively and deliberately untrue facts or statements in Measure A such that the court should prevent Humboldt County voters from deciding whether or not to adopt it.”

After Canning’s ruling, Betsy Watson and Mark Thurmond, Kneeland residents who funded and led the effort to craft the initiative seeking to overhaul the county’s cannabis cultivation regulations, issued a press release praising the judge’s finding that their effort complied with state law.

“We’re gratified that the court saw through the growers’ attempt to deprive the people of their right to vote on Measure A,” Watson said in the release. “The thousands of voters who signed the Measure A petitions weren’t ignorant or misled. People may disagree about whether Measure A is the right thing for Humboldt County. But it’s time to move past the lawsuits and personal attacks. The people have a right to decide.”

HCGA has vociferously argued Measure A’s passing would have far reaching and unintended consequences that could be devastating to the already struggling cannabis cultivation industry locally and Executive Director Natalynne DeLapp issued a statement indicating its disappointment with Canning’s ruling.

“While we are disappointed with the ruling, we  believe voters will conclusively reject the misleading tactics being used to sell Measure A,” she said. “We join with local environmental groups, law enforcement agencies, small businesses and farmers, and political leaders in asking the public to vote no on Measure A in March.”

Canning’s ruling sets the stage for contentious campaigns for and against the measure, which has already drawn complaints of unfair play from both sides. Thurmond and Watson have accused the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors and county staff of misleading the public and drumming up opposition to the measure, while charging that some opponents of the initiative have engaged in personal attacks. HCGA and some cannabis farmers, meanwhile, have accused Watson and Thurmond of intentionally misleading voters, casting the measure as seeking to protect small legacy cannabis farms while they charge it will negatively impact virtually all farms in Humboldt County and is inherently anti-cannabis.

Speaking at a Humboldt Emeritus and Retired Faculty and Staff Association lunch last month, Thurmond and Watson pushed back on the charge that the initiative is inherently anti-cannabis, with Watson calling it an “anti-industrialization of our timberlands and ag lands initiative.” Thurmond said the initiative grew out of problems his Kneeland neighborhood was having with a proposed cultivation site, and the desire of residents in the county’s rural areas to have more control of what moves in around them, noting that in addition to fears that cannabis dewaters streams, farms can bring “people who are undesirable” to neighborhoods. They contend the measure adds teeth to existing ordinances governing cultivation in Humboldt County, and would better protect the area’s natural resources, most notably water.

If passed, Measure A would amend the county’s general plan and overhaul the county’s cannabis regulations to increase noticing requirements for neighboring properties, prohibit new grows larger than 10,000 square feet, cap the number of permits countywide, require permitted operations be inspected annually and phase out the use of generators.

County staff and others have charged that while the initiative’s stated aim is to protect the county from an influx of largescale farms, that’s a problem that currently doesn’t exist, noting that some 98 percent of the county’s permitted farms don’t meet the state definition of “large.” They argue cannabis farms’ water use is already regulated and monitored far more than that of any other industry. Further, they contend the measure would immediately render hundreds of farms throughout the county as “nonconforming” — either because they are larger than 10,000 square feet or because they are located on roads that won’t meet new requirements in the initiative — which would significantly limit their ability to make certain upgrades, including adding water storage or solar arrays. And because the initiative, if passed, could only be changed by a vote of the people, it would be difficult to correct any issues, foreseen or not, they say.

Canning’s ruling paves the way for voters to decide on March 5 whether Measure A adds needed teeth and protections to existing county regulations, as Watson and Thurmond contend, or is “bad policy” that would be devastating to an already struggling industry, as DeLapp has argued. 
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Thadeus Greenson

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Thadeus Greenson is the news editor of the North Coast Journal.

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