Pin It

Growers Seek to Remove Cannabis Initiative from Ballot 

Lawsuit alleges 'sleight of hand,' violations of state elections code

click to enlarge news3-01-a3821c5393c94d70.jpg


The Humboldt County Growers Alliance and seven local farmers have filed a lawsuit seeking to prevent an initiative that would dramatically reshape the county's cannabis cultivation regulations from appearing on the March ballot.

The suit, filed Oct. 11 against Humboldt County Registrar of Voters Juan Cervantes, alleges proponents of Measure A, dubbed the Humboldt Cannabis Reform Initiative, violated the California Elections Code, misled voters through "sleight of hand" and failed to provide adequate information about the effects of what they were proposing while gathering signatures to qualify the measure for the ballot. The suit seeks a writ of mandate and injunctive relief preventing Cervantes from placing the initiative on the ballot.

Because the election is fast approaching, the lawsuits asks a Humboldt County judge to decide the matter by Dec. 7, just before the county's ballot printing deadline.

"If the signature-gathering efforts for Measure A were truthful, this initiative never would have made it to the ballot," Humboldt County Growers Alliance (HCGA) Executive Director Natalyne DeLapp said in a press release. "Claiming to protect small cannabis farmers and public participation, while in fact targeting small cannabis farmers with a panoply of new restrictions and locking broken policy in place permanently, is exactly the subversion of the democratic process that elections laws are designed to prevent." 

The initiative's primary proponents, Mark Thurmond and Elizabeth Watson, who are named in the lawsuit as real parties of interest, indicated they stand by the ballot measure, though they declined to comment on the substance of the lawsuit, saying they had not had time to fully review it.

"We can say we are confident the cannabis reform initiative is legal and belongs on the March ballot," Thurmond wrote in an email to the Journal, while Watson added that "win or lose," she trusts the judgment of voters.

Initiated by a group of Kneeland area residents led by Thurmond and Watson who were concerned about the environmental and neighborhood impacts of cannabis cultivation, Measure A gathered more than 7,000 valid signatures to qualify for the ballot and, if passed, would amend the county's general plan to significantly overhaul cannabis regulations. If passed, the initiative can also only be amended or altered by another vote of the people.

Thurmond and Watson have maintained the initiative would reduce the environmental impact of the cannabis industry in Humboldt, capping the number and size of new farms, while also further limiting farmers' ability to pull water from streams and rivers, requiring studies of groundwater impacts and phasing out generator use. It would also significantly increase the noticing requirements for cultivation permits and require public hearings for all grows larger than 3,000 square feet.

The cannabis industry and county staff have voiced concern the initiative would have dire consequences if passed. It would also cap the size of farms at 10,000 square feet, which would immediately render more than 400 of the county's permitted farms "non-conforming," and require farms to be located on roads that meet or exceed Category 4 standards (two-lane roads that can accommodate speeds of 25 to 40 mph).

The initiative would allow non-conforming farms to continue operations as long as they don't "expand" their uses, which is defined to mean "an increase in cultivation area, water usage, energy usage or the number or size of any structures used in connection with cultivation." Staff and industry advocates argue this would effectively prohibit existing non-conforming farms from making environmental improvements to their property, like installing solar arrays or water storage systems. According to the lawsuit, if passed, the initiative would also change the tax status of some existing farms.

The lawsuit alleges the initiative's proponents characterized it as an effort to protect small farms when gathering signatures and "did not include information on its face to inform voters about many of the drastic changes the initiative would make to existing Humboldt County law." The lawsuit further alleges proponents violated California Elections Code section 18600(a) — intentionally misrepresenting or making false statements about the initiative's contents, a misdemeanor — by including "objectively inaccurate information and calculated untruths" that "substantially misled" voters.

Humboldt County Sheriff's Office spokesperson Samantha Karges said she does not have any record of anyone filing a complaint regarding Thurmond and Watson's signature gathering efforts and neither are under investigation for alleged violations of the election code.

Specifically, the lawsuit alleges that while the initiative contains "statements falsely telling prospective signers that the legal changes affect only 'large-scale cannabis cultivation,'" it applies to all cultivation in the county, regardless of size. And while the state of California has defined large cultivation as more than 1 acre of outdoor cannabis, the initiative renders farms far smaller — 10,000 square feet — non-conforming.

But the issue the lawsuit spends most of its 26 pages focused on is the initiative's alleged failure to give signers enough information to make an informed decision. The so-called "full text requirement" of state elections code requires that initiative proponents not only present voters with the language they wish to add or subtract from a county code but enough context to "adequately inform potential signers about the full and complete legal effect" if the petition were enacted, the suit alleges. The lawsuit goes on to cite eight cases in which initiatives were prevented from appearing on the ballot after courts found they failed to meet this "full text requirement."

In Measure A's case, the lawsuit notes it would overhaul "four comprehensive county ordinances" that regulate cannabis cultivation and alleges proponents didn't give voters a full picture of the initiative's "outsized impact." As an example, the lawsuit notes the initiative would change the definition of "mixed-light cultivation," which could double the tax rate some cultivators would face under the new rules, but alleges that wasn't made clear to signers.

"Because potential signers were provided no notice that the initiative changed the taxing regime for existing outdoor cultivators, the potential signers were unable to intelligently evaluate the true legal effect of the initiative," the lawsuit states. "... In sum, the initiative made dramatic legal changes to an existing comprehensive regulatory regime, and the initiative petition failed to provide potential signers with sufficient information about those changes."

The lawsuit alleges the proponents could have remedied this error by including "relevant" documents — like the county's existing ordinances — with the initiative petition but did not.

While Watson declined to respond to the lawsuit in detail, saying she and Thurmond had only received it days earlier and hadn't thoroughly reviewed it yet, she did note a certain irony in the lawsuit's charge that prospective voters weren't given enough information when asked to sign the petition.

"For 10 months they have been saying that the initiative was too long and complicated with 38 pages and now they want us to add another 400 or more," she wrote in an email to the Journal. "Don't see how that would help clarity for the voters."

HCGA Policy Director Ross Gordon said in a press release that the recent Humboldt County Planning Department analysis of Measure A "made clear how dangerous" it would be if passed, but charges it would not have made the ballot if "proponents had simply disclosed the truth about what this initiative does."

"Measure A would effectively repeal and replace 143 pages of county cannabis ordinances developed over eight years of public deliberation, and yet none of this was disclosed to voters who were told they were simply 'protecting small farmers,'" he said.

Thadeus Greenson (he/him) is the Journal's news editor. Reach him at (707) 442-1400, extension 321, or [email protected].

Pin It



Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

About The Author

Thadeus Greenson

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

more from the author

Latest in News

Readers also liked…

  • Through Mark Larson's Lens

    A local photographer's favorite images of 2022 in Humboldt
    • Jan 5, 2023
  • 'To Celebrate Our Sovereignty'

    Yurok Tribe to host gathering honoring 'ultimate river warrior' on the anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that changed everything
    • Jun 8, 2023


Facebook | Twitter

© 2024 North Coast Journal

Website powered by Foundation