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Economy

Supervisors vote to transfer cannabis licensing to planning department

A pile of dried cannabis buds is seen here, Aug. 31, 2017.
Andrew Bowen
/
KPBS
A pile of dried cannabis buds is seen here, Aug. 31, 2017.

The San Diego County Board of Supervisors Wednesday unanimously voted to advance a proposed ordinance that would transfer cannabis licensing duties from the sheriff's department to the planning department.

The board approved a first reading of the ordinance, which if passed will allow Planning and Development Services to handle enforcement, conduct background checks, quarterly and periodic inspections, issue operating certificates and process license renewals and transfers.

According to board Chairman Nathan Fletcher's office, Wednesday's action "is another step in the county's efforts to create a safe, regulated and legal cannabis policy for the unincorporated communities."

"Shifting to code compliance teams makes San Diego more consistent with the rest of California, and frees up our sheriff deputies to spend their time protecting our community and cracking down on illegal cannabis operations," Fletcher added.

A second reading for the proposal is set for the board's Nov. 16 meeting. If supervisors approve it, the ordinance will take effect 30 days afterward.

Five marijuana operations are currently allowed to operate within the county. Three are located in Ramona, while the other two are in unincorporated El Cajon and Escondido. Supervisors have also approved increased law enforcement efforts to crack down on illegal pot operations.

Members of the public weighed in before Wednesday's vote, with those in favor saying the ordinance made sense in terms of social justice and economics, while opponents said the change would send the wrong message on marijuana use.

Anthony Avalos of the Council for Equity Advocacy in San Diego thanked the board "for taking a progressive and necessary step" toward building a socially equitable cannabis program.

"As a direct descendant of the war of drugs, I cannot overstate the impact that the both the San Diego Police and Sheriff's Department has had on not just on me, but my family and my community," he added.

Joel Weisberger, chairman of the San Diego County Farm Bureau's cannabis working group, said it makes sense to have PDS oversee compliance duties.

"The (Sheriff's Department) doesn't regulate alcohol — why would they regulate cannabis?" Weisberger asked. He added that most licensed cannabis businesses haven't been cited for any serious infractions, including the five facilities located in San Diego County.

Diane Grace, a frequent critic of the cannabis program, said the duties are "too daunting for the planning department," and opined that the sheriff's department is better equipped for such a task.

Citing a recent Los Angeles Times report on political corruption allegations in connection with the legal marijuana industry in California, Grace said having deputies handle enforcement would show that the county is committed to transparency.

A member of CleanEarth4Kids.org, a children's health advocacy group, said the county should find other ways to help those unfairly prosecuted for drug offenses without putting kids at risk.

"This is not about equity," he said. "This is addiction for profit."

Joe Eberstein, program manager the San Diego County Marijuana Prevention Initiative, said the sheriff's department "has done an excellent job" with licensing, and suggested the county also investigate the problem of underage access to marijuana.

After the meeting, Eberstein said it took a while for the sheriff's department to get up to speed on enforcement, and he hopes that knowledge is easily transferred to PDS.

Supervisor Jim Desmond remains opposed to pot dispensaries in the county's unincorporated regions and considers marijuana to be a gateway drug, but he since the ordinance deals with oversight, he said the planning department can do just as good a job, freeing the sheriff's department for more serious public safety matters.

Supervisor Terra Lawson-Remer said transferring compliance duties means "getting great service for less than a third of the costs."

Early last year, Fletcher and colleague Nora Vargas proposed a socially equitable cannabis policy as a way to eliminate the black market and address how anti-drug policies impact low-income and minority communities.

In June, supervisors approved placing a marijuana business tax proposal on the November ballot. If passed by voters, the measure would affect businesses only in the county's unincorporated areas.

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