Even with sanctioned permits, commercial cannabis still presents challenges in Nevada County, and a report from the Civil Grand Jury this month uncovered just a fraction of cultivators in compliance with regulations.
David Anderson, the grand jury foreperson, said his panel’s investigation estimates between 3,500 and 4,000 illegal growers are working in the county.
“Currently, 2 to 3% of illegal growers convert to legal, but that means 97% are not in compliance,” Anderson said.
As of now, regulation relies on a Cannabis Compliance Division based on citizen complaints. That division has only two staffers. And since they are unarmed, they could be reluctant to go out in the field to confront illegal growers, Anderson said.
“But they are not required to investigate,” he added. “They only respond to complaints.”
Another obstacle to converting violators to permitted growers are the prerequisites mandated by the state to break into the business, which can be costly, Anderson noted.
“To be permitted your fields must be in an agricultural zone,” he said. “You must also be (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliant. That requires paved roads to the business, compliant restrooms on site, adequate parking and commercial fire alarms.”
It can be costly with permitting fees reaching up to $85,000. And nobody can grow legally until they obtain permits. Meanwhile the process can take four months to complete.
Another hurdle to convince violators to convert to permitted cultivation are the fines, which are low when compared to other counties. Until last month fines were capped at $25,000.
“For some large growers they treat that as just a cost of doing business,” said Anderson. “But now fines are not capped, they have a little more teeth. But total fines in Nevada County were $66,607. Humboldt County has over $3 million in fines. So, you can infer fines are not a big deterrent.”
To mitigate the situation the grand jury first recommends streamlining the permitting process. This may require reconsideration of the paved roads and ADA compliance requirements. But another critical change would be to return enforcement to the Sheriff’s Office. Also needed is a reevaluation of fines.
“Even with the cap removed, they are still relatively low and big growers are willing to pay,” said Anderson. “Also, explore greater use of technology. Humboldt uses a satellite system, and that’s not necessarily expensive.
He added that Humboldt spent about $200,000 for a satellite contract. Some other counties have relied on drones, but issues of invasion of privacy may hold up deployment in Nevada County.
“Even though the Board of Supervisors said it was a priority, we’re not making much progress increasing permitted grows,” said Anderson. “And the fact that reliance on a complaint-based system will not be effective as a proactive compliance system. We put a lot of hard work in this report. Hopefully, it’ll have an effect.”
The grand jury also recommended adding sheriff’s substations in North San Juan and other remote areas. But that would only be done after enforcement was transferred from the compliance division to the Sheriff’s Office.
William Roller is a staff writer with The Union. He can be reached at [email protected]