Napa County supervisors want to move slowly on opening up wine country to commercial cannabis cultivation, but faster on possibly allowing the county’s first recreational cannabis store.

The county has no cannabis stores and the south county cities – home to most of the population—have been cautious about contemplating more than medical cannabis dispensaries. Several supervisors said the unincorporated county might have to fill the void for recreational access in the spirit of Proposition 64.

“I’m looking at this and thinking, ‘Is it going to fall back on the county to be the entity that provides a dispensary if there’s not a dispensary in the city of Napa or the city of American Canyon?’” Supervisor Diane Dillon said.

Supervisors on Tuesday directed staff to start crafting an ordinance allowing a recreational cannabis store in the unincorporated county. They said they would pass it only as a last resort if the cities fail to act, given the county’s preference that most retail businesses be located in cities.

City councils govern land use within cities. The Board of Supervisors governs land use in the unincorporated county outside of cities, most of which is agricultural land.

The city of Napa could have a medical cannabis dispensary open toward year’s end. Mayor Jill Techel said Wednesday the idea is to see how medical dispensaries work out before contemplating a recreational store within city limits.

Meanwhile, the Board of Supervisors majority sees no hurry to decide if cannabis should join grapes as a local cash crop. The timeline for finishing a commercial cannabis cultivation law, if such a law moves forward at all, appears to be in 2020.

“I do believe Proposition 64 is very much an access issue and decriminalization issue,” Supervisor Belia Ramos said. “We need to keep the focus on that.”

The Napa Valley Cannabis Association wants the county to pass a cultivation law by early next year. After the meeting, association spokeswoman Anne Steinhauer said a citizen ballot initiative is a possibility if the county moves too slowly.

Supervisor Ryan Gregory was willing to push ahead more quickly with a commercial cultivation law than his colleagues. He’d heard talk of a possible ballot initiative.

“And I bet if that happens and it’s successful, we’ll wish we had done something to have controlled it ourselves,” Gregory said.

The Napa Valley Cannabis Association presented a draft law to the county. This draft calls for allowing commercial cannabis grows of up to one acre per parcel in agricultural areas, with no tree clear-cutting allowed.

Sheriff John Robertson addressed the Board of Supervisor at Supervisor Alfredo Pedroza’s request.

“It’s not (law enforcement’s) job to have an opinion on some of this,” Robertson said. “But it is our job to keep our community safe.”

He’s uncertain whether he has the personnel to protect one-acre cannabis grows from theft, Robertson said. Cannabis is an attractive item for theft, it’s hard to protect and he doesn’t want to see anyone hurt, he said.

“I just want you to know it’s very resource-intensive from law enforcement,” Robertson said.

Supervisors talked about making certain commercial cannabis cultivation would pay to cover associated county government costs, such as enforcing related county laws. One idea is a tax on cannabis operations that could go before voters in March 2020.

Supervisor Belia Ramos said she would like to see a commercial cannabis cultivation law tied to a tax measure passing, in effect giving voters the final say on commercial grows.

Pedroza said his commitment is to cannabis access and he would never stand in the way of those using cannabis as a medical resource. He views commercial cultivation more cautiously.

“At this point, I don’t see us needing to take this step at this moment,” Pedroza said.

A number of speakers addressed the county on the commercial cannabis cultivation issue.

Napa Valley Vintners has taken no position, but wants to protect the world-famous Napa name that is associated with wine. Group spokesperson Rex Stults said the wine world has appellations that are enforced and a cannabis appellation system has yet to be developed.

“If you go ahead, please pay attention to this – not just at a superficial level, but a deep level,” Stults told supervisors.

Grapegrower Steve Moulds said he recently read that the North Bay is awash in cannabis. He asked Napa County to impose a three-year ban on commercial cannabis cultivation, to see what happens in other counties with regard to water use, toxic contamination for unlicensed growing, criminal activity and other possible cannabis-related issues.

“I advise caution in our ag preserve, in our ag watershed,” he said.

Vintner Michael Honig had another view. He referenced the recent ballot-box battle over Measure C, with some saying farming is the best use of the land and others wanting watershed protections to restrict clear-cutting for vineyards.

“Here you have a product that’s an agricultural product that fits in with the use of the land, what it’s intended for, a high-value commodity,” he said. “And it’s a much lower impact than if you plant a large vineyard.”

Cannabis cultivation is a good compromise for the recent watershed disagreements, Honig said.

Napa County Superintendent of Schools Barbara Nemko said a survey shows 75 percent of local students by grade 11 think smoking cannabis once or twice a week poses zero-to-moderate health risks. But cannabis affects the adolescent brain differently than the adult brain. Cannabis use by teens can cause an eight-percent IQ point drop, she said.

“Let’s think about the message we send,” Nemko said. “This is not just eating a lollipop or a gummy bear.”

Steinhauer said the Napa Valley Cannabis Association wants to keep cannabis away from those under age 21 unless they have valid medical reasons and authorization.

“We’re ready, willing and able to work with any and all parties to work toward decreasing adolescent cannabis usage,” she said.

Marty Flynn said that over the past year, he has been getting involved in the legalized cannabis industry.

“Yes, the commercial opportunities exceed what we’ve seen since the first tech boom 20 years ago,” he said. “Compound annual growth rates exceeding 20 percent are happening now and are expected to continue past 2021.”

Supervisors didn’t want to rush to have a cultivation law in place by the start of 2019, as suggested by the Cannabis Association, or by summer 2019, the deadline for California Environmental Quality Act exemptions.

“I am not going to say I’m against this,” Ramos said. “I’m going to say we need a more realistic time frame.”

Nineteen of California’s 58 counties have passed laws allowing commercial cannabis cultivation – Alameda, Contra Costa, Humboldt, Imperial, Inyo, Lake, Mendocino, Mono, Monterey, Nevada, San Francisco, San Luis Obispo, San Mateo, Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, Sonoma, Stanislaus, Trinity and Yolo counties. The Contra Costa County law is subject to voters passing a November tax measure, a Napa County report said.

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Napa County Reporter

Barry Eberling covers Napa County government, transportation, the environment and general assignments. He has worked for the Napa Valley Register since fall 2014 and previously worked 27 years for the Daily Republic of Fairfield.