A win for Big Sur cannabis growers County approves pilot program

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By Joe Livernois

Big Sur cannabis growers won the right to prove themselves legitimate on Tuesday. On a 3-2 vote, the Monterey County Board of Supervisors ordered county officials to create a pilot program that would allow open-air cannabis grows in the Santa Lucia hills around Big Sur. And supervisors said they’d like the program approved by the end of the year. Supervisors John Phillips and Simon Salinas voted against the proposal.

In a strange twist, county law-enforcement officers showed up at the hearing to oppose the pilot program, but their testimony unwittingly provided fodder for proponents.

Deputy District Attorney Jeannine Pacioni told supervisors that illegal open-air marijuana farms in places like Prunedale and South County were destroying the environment, creating security issues and using water illicitly. She showed photos of illegal farms that county officials have raided during the past six weeks to illustrate those problems. She told supervisors that deputies and investigators from her office seized 10,000 pounds of illegal weed during a recent six-week period.

Pacioni was elected to replace District Attorney Dean Flippo earlier this year and will take over the office in January after Flippo retires. She told supervisors that Flippo warned county officials years ago that legalizing open-air marijuana farms would be “like inviting the devil in.”

In response, Big Sur farmers and three of the five county supervisors said that legalizing the Big Sur operations — and holding those operations liable to county rules and regulations — shouldn’t prohibit law enforcement officers from pursuing growers who operate outside the system.

“How would enforcement operations on illegal operations be complicated if we make some operations legal?” asked Supervisor Jane Parker.

And Peter Brazil, an attorney representing Big Sur growers, told supervisors that legal Big Sur farmers are likely to report growers who aren’t playing by the county rules because the illegal operators would have an unfair market advantage. “You will be deputizing these people,” he said.

The Big Sur Growers Association, a group of about 100 cannabis growers from the region, has been lobbying county officials for at least two years, after the county explicitly excluded outdoor farms from county policies that allowed cannabis grow operations. As a result, all cannabis farms in the county are operating in Salinas Valley greenhouses.

But Big Sur marijuana growers, some of whom have been working their relatively smaller farms for decades, say they should be given a chance to prove to the county that they are responsible stewards of their land. They consider themselves “legacy” growers who have developed an international reputation for the quality of their product. They have suggested that their product, with a Santa Lucia “appellation,” will eventually give Monterey County cannabis the sort of stature that Napa County now has for its wine.

Many of the Big Sur farmers had been briefly given legal status to grow cannabis for medical purposes, but the rules changed when Proposition 64 allowed marijuana farms and cannabis product sales in California two years ago. County officials acknowledged that they were initially skeptical about sanctioning outdoor cultivators. A county report released last month indicated that Monterey County Resource Management Agency officials consulted with their counterparts in other counties that had allowed outdoor grows — places like Humboldt and Butte counties. Those officials said they experienced a “myriad of struggles” trying to enforce environmental damage and plant limits. Circumstances have since changed, according to the report, mainly because enforcement policies have evolved and improved.

Supervisors on Tuesday ordered county officials to work out the details of the pilot program. Those details will ultimately be sent to the county Planning Commission for review before the proposal goes to the Board of Supervisor later this year.

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Joe Livernois

About Joe Livernois

Joe Livernois has been a reporter, editor and columnist in Monterey County for 35 years.