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Would-Be Marijuana Farmers Could Find Growing Pains in San Diego

If California voters approve Prop. 64, which legalizes recreational marijuana, San Diego has plenty of land, enough water and experienced farmers who are looking for new crops. There are regulatory obstacles to San Diego growers, though.

San Diego already has pot growers. We know this because a few are out in the open, and because illegal ones get busted from time to time. An untold number of other growers remain in the shadows.

But if state Proposition 64 passes, it’s possible far more would come out into the open. They may also be joined by growers leaving Northern California and by other farmers who want to move away from traditional crops, like avocados and citrus, to one that might make them a lot of money.

Here’s the lay of the land.

San Diego has plenty of land, enough water and experienced farmers who are looking for new crops.

Eric Larsen, the head of the San Diego County Farm Bureau, said some farmers are talking about growing marijuana, though that interest is mostly out of curiosity at this point.

“That, of course, would probably change if the measure passes,” he said in an email.

In Northern California – home of the “Emerald Triangle” of Humboldt, Mendocino and Trinity counties – some local officials are hoping to hang on to the marijuana industry, which contributes hundreds of millions of dollars to local economies.

One approach is to brand Northern California marijuana as an exceptionally good product, like Napa Valley wine. For that to work, though, it may require others in California to fail.

“For us to be the Napa Valley of cannabis, somebody has to be the Joseph Gallo of cannabis, putting out massive amounts of crap,” said Humboldt County Supervisor Mark Lovelace.

Medical marijuana has been allowed in California for two decades. Prop. 64 would allow anyone over the age of 21 to get marijuana even without a prescription.

The reason marijuana is grown in Northern California has little to do with agricultural reasons – like soil and climate – and more to do with history. Marijuana took off there after the 1960s, as hippies packed up and left the San Francisco Bay Area. There, in rural California counties, marijuana could be grown without attracting much attention from the law.

The cannabis industry was once a big deal in San Diego, although the product was hemp for textiles and building rather than marijuana for smoking. There was, for instance, a multimillion-dollar hemp processing plant in Chula Vista.

Some water agencies, hurt by a decline in sales to farmers, are intrigued by the potential for a new group of farmers to sell water to, even though marijuana growing is not yet permitted in their areas.

Gary Arant, the general manager of the Valley Center Municipal Water District, said water sales have plummeted in recent years. There’s a number of reasons for that, but one is the relatively high cost of water in San Diego, which means it’s hard for farmers to turn a profit on anything but high-value crops.

Arant said if a high-value crop like marijuana is legalized and does come to Valley Center, there’s enough water.

Valley Center has had to deal with water theft from illicit marijuana crops, so Arant knows there are already people growing in the area.

He said he expects some farmers will have philosophical opposition to growing marijuana, but others will see a business opportunity.

“Unless you’re prepared to subsidize the farmers to grow food, then they are going to grow what’s profitable,” he said.

Christopher W. McKinney, the director of utilities in Escondido, said he too had the physical capacity to supply marijuana growers with water, especially if they could use recycled water rather than drinking water.

“I’d love if they start springing up, if they spring up near our recycled water line,” he said.

Marijuana can be grown entirely indoors in a warehouse, in greenhouses or out in the open.

There are obstacles to San Diego growers, though.

Commercial marijuana cultivation is banned across most of the county because of long-standing local opposition to medical marijuana.

Even if Proposition 64 legalizes marijuana use across the state for people without a prescription, cities and counties could still completely ban marijuana-related businesses.

Right now, there are three different kinds of regulatory players in the county – the city of San Diego, the other cities in the county and the San Diego County government, which regulates the unincorporated parts of the county.

San Diego city officials anticipate that Prop. 64 will pass, and aim to make money if it does. Councilman Mark Kersey proposed Measure N, a citywide ballot measure to impose a sales tax on businesses that sell marijuana for recreational use.

The city has issued business tax certificates to six medical marijuana growing operations, though those certificates do not satisfy everyone in the industry because they do not specifically permit marijuana growing. The city has also granted full permission for 15 dispensaries to sell medical marijuana, though others operate without the city’s permission.

Other cities in the county have banned dispensaries and growing operations. The county has also banned both new dispensaries and growing operations, and the County Board of Supervisors recently voted to oppose Prop. 64 – though one licensed growing operation exists in El Cajon.

“The city currently permits dispensaries but it doesn’t permit transportation, distribution, cultivation, manufacturing – where are we supposed to legally get this?” said Will Senn, the co-founder of the United Medical Marijuana Coalition and the owner of a couple fully licensed dispensaries around the city. “Is it just supposed to appear? Is it magic?”

Senn argues for more permission to be given to marijuana businesses, if regulations are enforced. Right now, he’s among the legal dispensary operators forced to compete with unregulated dispensaries in the city of San Diego as well as La Mesa, Santee and Chula Vista.

“Enforce your ban or permit legal dispensaries,” he said.

If Prop. 64 wins, there would likely be similar pressure on government officials across the county to allow growing.

But even if the Board of Supervisors forbids growing in the rural parts of the county, it would have to make decisions about the industry because of the growing already allowed in the city of San Diego.

For instance, county health departments are in charge of regulating pesticides, so they would need to act to protect customers.

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