We gathered on a crisp autumn evening in Willits, situated in the heart of The Emerald Triangle. This particular evening, we were meeting at the community center at City Hall to talk about cannabis. City Hall?! Even after all the past years of fighting for cannabis reforms and proper legislation, it still shocks me when a bunch of growers sit down with government officials to work it out. This is grassroots democracy in action and it’s great to see when it actually works.
With a population of almost 10,000 people in the town and surrounding areas, Willits was born during the logging era of Mendocino County, back in the 1880s. It’s seen sheep farmers, cattle ranchers, loggers and hippies all come and go. North Main Street has quaint boutiques, several of which are now shuttered, while South Main Street is lined with more modern strip-mall architecture. Quiet back streets with large old shade trees and lovely Victorian homes wind around the edge of town. There’s a high school with a popular football team, a hunting club, a grange, yoga studios and a theater company.
Two years ago, a bypass road around Willits was completed, directing traffic away from Main Street into the new segment of Highway 101, so that it completely skipped the town. It’s a sad sight to see all the empty storefronts due to the combination of the bypass taking away through traffic and the decimation of the cannabis industry through legalization. Not only has Willits felt the economic depression due to the loss of so many of our cannabis farmers, but the entire County of Mendocino is feeling the effects. Clearly, our officials must have also begun to recognize that reality. How could they miss the plethora of local real estate listings or the empty storefronts?
All the regular activists were at the community center, those of us who rarely have missed a meeting about cannabis and the new regulations in our county. We’ve developed a camaraderie and are always happy to see who continues to go forward, although some have not had it easy. Between harvest season and keeping up with all the business now associated with being a cannabis cultivator, it had been a while since we had been to a supervisors meeting. So it was a reunion and we had been summoned. The e-mail invitation from the county called it the “cannabis ad hoc community meeting.”
This, the second cannabis ad hoc committee, was created by the board of supervisors in July 2018. Supervisors John McCowen and Dan Hamburg were appointed to review the current cannabis cultivation ordinance and recommend changes to the full board of supervisors. These men have both sat on the board for several terms and have often held opposing views. Initially, we had our doubts that they would be able to agree on any real changes, but there was hope that working together on the cannabis ordinance had brought them to a reconciliation. Supervisor Hamburg, who is retiring at the end of his term in December, was unable to attend the meeting.
Folding chairs squeaked on the linoleum floor as everyone took their places. County CEO Carmel Angelo was emcee and stood to the right of a long table in the front of the room. Seated at it was the new agriculture commissioner, Harinder Grewal. Next to him sat Brent Schultz, the new director of planning and building, and then John McGowan, member of the ad hoc committee and current chairperson of the board of supervisors. Numerous staff from those departments were there, as well as the deputy county counsel.
Supervisor McGowan has been both our adversary and our friend on various occasions as we have worked through these negotiations over the last four years. I must always remind myself that we live in our personal bubble (doesn’t everyone?) and think the whole world lives and breathes cannabis knowledge. That’s just our thing. But for all these officials and government staff, the whole cannabis thing has been totally new to them. To their credit, it seems some of them actually have been listening.
Following proper introductions, McGowan took the microphone to give the update from the ad hoc committee. Concisely, he went through the proposed recommendations and discussion points to the county cannabis ordinance. Quickly a pattern became evident, they were suggesting revisions that we have literally prayed would happen. Zoning and permit capabilities which we had begged for at many many meetings. They had listened! What may sound like simple things, such as “visibility from a public road” or “open rangeland to new cultivation” is enormous to the lives of many. The possibility of two permits per parcel? Wow. I was literally getting chills watching to McGowan mouth the words “transferability of permits.” I am still having difficulty believing them! This represents a huge change. A switch from enforcement to encouragement.
So right about now, you are probably saying, “who cares about all this politics and zoning?” Oddly enough, a bunch of us old hippy farmers up here in the hills really do care. We only want the best for our county’s economic and cultural health as well as to maintain our ability to make available the precious medicine we cultivate here in this blessed growing region.
I recall stories of Napa Valley before it blossomed into a world-renowned wine region. That was like sleepy Willits is now. The town could so easily become a mecca for conscious cannabis consumption in beautiful surroundings in the heart of The Emerald Triangle. This is a very easy vision to conjure. I can easily imagine that in 10 years Main Street properties will become sought after and various cannabis shops will open in empty storefronts. Canna-tours are already happening.
Of course, not all our wishes were granted. Following the run through of ordinance revisions, several people had their personal suggestions and complaints to share during the public comment period. Naturally, as time progresses new problems will continue to emerge and hopefully, we can sensibly deal with them as they come up. As I commented during my allotted 3 minutes, “Thank you for giving us hope at last.” It’s been years of effort on the part of many committed people to get this far, and it is so exciting to actually see the green light of a judicious cannabis ordinance for Mendocino County in our future.
TELL US, have you experienced trying to comply with cannabis regulations?