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A provision in Humboldt County's cannabis land use ordinance has local school districts feeling caught between a rock and a stinky pot farm.

The ordinance requires that cannabis grows, processing areas and other marijuana businesses be set back at least 600 feet from a school or school bus stop but provides that districts can waive the requirement if they desire. The provision has resulted in a flood of waiver applications in some of the county's more than 30 school districts and there isn't a uniform policy for addressing them. Some districts have opted to deny all applications, others take them on a case-by-case basis. In the most curious case, the Southern Humboldt Unified School District was apparently charging cannabis entrepreneurs $1,000 per setback waiver application until coming under new leadership this year.

Humboldt County Office of Education Superintendent Chris Hartley expressed frustration at the situation, telling the Journal that he's left several phone messages with the county Planning Department seeking to discuss the matter but all have gone unreturned.

"My personal position is, why are districts even in the position of making decisions that are truly out of our purview?" he wrote in an email to the Journal. "Isn't the county Planning Department's role to determine land use, development and construction? Why are district officials spending time, energy and resources on work that is normally conducted by county planning officials? School educators should be focused on serving students, not scrutinizing planning and development documents."

In some cases, district officials reported being asked to weigh in on cannabis cultivation permit plans by county staff. Even that seems to put them in a very sticky situation.

"Schools receive federal funding and are caught in the middle on this issue as cannabis is still a Schedule 1 drug under ... federal law, meaning we have to follow federal laws," Hartley wrote. "Taking actions that support cannabis cultivation could jeopardize schools' federal funding."

The Eureka City Schools board took up the issue in September, with staff reporting that the district had received 10 to 12 applications to review from the county and expressing frustration that the county "cannot seem to get it straight which district [applications] should go to for review," pointing out that some applications had bypassed the district office and gone directly to schools. After "much discussion," the board decided the district should deny all waiver applications, according to minutes from the meeting.

The Southern Humboldt Unified School District apparently took a different approach, charging applicants $1,000 a piece for waiver applications until this year.

SoHum District Superintendent Don Boyd only took the position in August, shortly before the school year began, moving up from Lake County to be closer to his native Fortuna. He said he was totally unaware of the district's former policy or the specific provision of the county's ordinance.

"I'm still trying to wrap my brain around this whole issue," Boyd said, adding that he was working with the district's legal department to get up to speed.

Boyd said he couldn't answer how many waiver applications the district received prior to his arrival, how much revenue they had generated or how much revenue the district had generated from them. But he did say no waiver applications have been submitted since his arrival and that he generally agrees with Hartley on the issue.

"We're trying to educate students and run school districts, and now we're having to deal with politics that have nothing to do with education," he said. "Whoever's bright idea it was to give school districts the power to do this is just inappropriate, I think."

If Hartley ever gets a call back from the planning department, he said he'd like to just see waivers come off the table entirely.

"Ultimately, cannabis operations should be completely separated from having any negative impact on students and schools," he said. "Student safety is our number one priority."

Thadeus Greenson is the Journal's news editor. Reach him at 442-1400, extension 321, or thad@northcoastjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson.

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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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