New marijuana laws will soon go into effect, and the city of Oceanside is among those considering how to regulate the cultivation of cannabis.
For some San Diego County farmers struggling to stay in business with rising water bills and higher labor costs, there are potential profits from the newly legalized crop.
Mike Mellano’s family has been farming in Morro Hills in north Oceanside for more than 40 years. Mike stands next to his mother, Sharon, beside fields of myrtle bushes, grown for florists’ arrangements. Her bright green T-shirt has the slogan “Keep Calm and Farm On” in big letters on the front.
Like most farmers in San Diego County, the Mellanos are dealing with rising water and labor costs. Mike Mellano recently decided to quit his job as CEO of the family business and strike out on his own, a move his mother approves. He is now exploring the future of commercial cannabis cultivation.
“We believe the state of California has said that cannabis is a commercial crop,” Mellano said, “and as farmers, we believe we should be allowed to farm this in compliance with state laws.”
The city of Oceanside still has over 3,000 acres of agricultural land, more than most other incorporated cities in San Diego County. Local farmers and residents would like to keep Morro Hills as farmland — the question is how to keep agriculture economically viable.
“I think the community would like this to stay in agriculture, and we certainly would like it to stay in agriculture, but we have to be profitable, so we can’t be farmers and lose money,” Mellano said. “If we’re not allowed to change into other crops, it will be difficult for us to be competitive over the next several years. Many of these farms will be gone, and turned into houses.“
Housing developments already nudge up to the western edge of Morro Hills. The city of Oceanside invested $50,000 earlier this year in an initiative to promote agritourism in Morro Hills, as an attempt to introduce more revenue-producing businesses.
Oceanside's medical marijuana ad hoc committee
So far, marijuana cultivation is not one of the options the city is considering. But Prop 64 passed last November, legalizing recreational marijuana in California, and in April, city councilman Jerry Kern — a Republican — proposed forming a medical marijuana ad hoc committee. It is now considering whether and how to regulate marijuana cultivation, testing, distribution and sales in Oceanside.
“I voted against medical marijuana back in the ’90s,” Kern said. “I voted against recreational use this time. But 57 percent of the people in the city of Oceanside voted for it. So the idea is, if we’re going to do this, let’s do it right.”
Public opinion shifting
Oceanside residents David and Amber Newman know public opinion is swinging their way. They own a state-licensed indoor nursery that grows cuttings for marijuana patients who want to grow their own medicinal marijuana.
“This right here is what most of our patients start with,” Amber Newman said, showing a tray of small cuttings rooting in soil. “These are cut off of a mother plant. So our members will take this and they’ll plant it in their garden: they can do hydro, they can do soil, whatever works best for them, everybody has their own technique.”
Earlier this year, the Newmans threatened to put a citizens initiative on the ballot if the Oceanside city council did not consider regulating marijuana to make it legal locally.
“With the city deciding to have the conversation, we decided to shelve our initiative,” said Newman. “Pull it back and basically do our best to work with the city, instead of being confrontational and working against them. “
The Newmans have been in the business of growing cuttings for medical marijuana patients for nine years. They said several hundred patients rely on them, but right now, there is nowhere in the county to legally grow it commercially.
“Not at this time,” said Newman. “The unincorporated areas of San Diego County did have licensed cultivation options available until the last election, and the new board of supervisors went in and basically took all that back.”
The change of heart at the county came when Kristin Gaspar ousted Dave Roberts last November. Gaspar was among the 3-2 majority voting to ban marijuana operations in unincorporated areas of the county.
Kern is running for a seat on the county board of supervisors next year to replace Bill Horn, who is termed out. Kern said developing local regulation is a better way to go than a ban.
“I think the county was wrong when they said, ‘Let’s just ban it,’” Kern said, “because it opens them up to the initiative process — then they lose all control. If somebody puts a voters’ initiative forward and it passes, then you’re not in the driver’s seat anymore.“
Kern said the main problems surrounding marijuana regulation lie in regulating dispensaries, but he’s optimistic his city council will be on board with marijuana cultivation by the end of the year.
“My feeling is, it is a legal crop in California,” Kern said. “Why should we prohibit our farmers in the city of Oceanside from growing a legal crop?”
A report issued for the ad hoc committee in April suggests the cash value of an acre of cannabis is $4.2 million, compared to $68,500 for an acre of strawberries and $8,300 for an acre of avocados. The report predicts cannabis will generate $7.6 billion in sales in California by 2020.
Farm Bureau on board
Back in Morro Hills, Joel Wiesberger is working to develop outdoor cultivation of marijuana in greenhouses.
Wesiberger said his first experience of marijuana was when his grandmother had to undergo chemo for cancer in the mid-1980s.
“I remember they called ’em grandma's special cigarettes,” he recalled. “I saw that it really helped her, and it imparted something to me that marijuana is a special plant, and it has something to offer.”
Weisberger had an indoor nursery in Vista for over a year before it was busted by the Sheriff’s Department. But charges were dropped because he had all the correct state paperwork. Weisberg still has the evidence tags he used to go and pick up his confiscated equipment from the sheriff’s office.
Now, he is working with the San Diego Farm Bureau, which this year has taken an official position in support of legalizing cannabis cultivation locally.
Weisberger said marijuana does not have to be grown in indoor warehouses. Outdoor greenhouses would need to be made secure, but they would save energy.
“Growers don’t want to spend $30,000 a month on electricity,” he said. “They do it because they have to, because it’s secure and hidden. But if you could grow the same quality product and use the power of the sun, it not only brings overhead down, but is also definitely more environmental.”
Citizens’ initiative still a possibility
David and Amanda Newman are watching the outcome of the city’s medical marijuana ad hoc committee carefully. It is due to make recommendations to the full council in September.
“We want the city to say, ‘OK, here’s where you can do this, here’s your zoning area, here’s your path to your conditional use permit, here’s your path to a business license.’
“If the council decides to vote ‘no’ when all is said and done,” David Newman said, “we will have to put our initiative into play, which will mean gathering signatures and putting it on the 2018 ballot.”
One way or another, Oceanside could be at the forefront of regulating and legalizing local marijuana cultivation, not just in industrial warehouses, but also on agricultural land.