By Janet Perry
As Sonoma County Supervisors weigh and discuss how the cannabis industry should be regulated, concern is rising that those regulations could in turn affect other agricultural industries in the county. As the cannabis industry reels from restrictions, Sonoma County is losing potential business and tax dollars while cannabis growers leave their operations to counties with fewer restrictions.
The wine industry finds itself under similar scrutiny in Sonoma County by vocal opponents to large vineyards, their events, and increased traffic near their homes, waterways, and scenic byways. Some worry that as the lines between cannabis and wine blur, those opponents will have more fuel for heavier restrictions on the wine industry.
During the May 30th Sonoma County Cannabis Advisory Group meeting in Santa Rosa, advisory group members grappled with the necessity and ramifications of pages of proposed regulations and Sonoma County residents spoke about their support and concerns for an industry that is promising to be more lucrative than wine.
During the Advisory Group meeting’s public comment period, some local residents spoke vehemently against having cannabis cultivation near their homes, even when those homes were in historical agricultural areas. Some were so outspoken in their negative view of cannabis cultivators that one local called upon everyone to stop using the words “us” and “them,” stating that “we’re all neighbors” and that coming together to create solutions that work for everyone was important.
Ned Fussell is co-founder of Cannacraft. Cannacraft boasts of being a “community oriented” company with high standards from organic cannabis cultivation on through to the processing and packaging of their product. Cannacraft was purchasing most of their cannabis from Sonoma County, however, that has changed now that growers are under heavy restrictions. Fussell addressed the regulations present in Sonoma County and the changes being discussed by the County.
“CA has 58 counties, that sometimes operate like separate countries, who apply state laws and
policies in distinct ways,” explained Fussell. “This is part of what makes us a great state and also at times one that is difficult to do business in.”
Fussell added that, “Sonoma County is a recognized leader in the wine industry and has the opportunity to lead the way in cannabis with less regulations that are less prohibitive, but with policies and collaborative approaches that encourage neighborly problem solving to address concerns.”
“Long time residents who desire to grow legally and responsibly are being forced to close or are being driven back into the black market due to changing and inconsistent views and policies in local leadership,” explained Fussell. “The other scenario is that legitimate business owners move their investments and operations to other counties, while other smaller operations are getting pushed out of the industry altogether.”
When asked about the growing concern that the wine industry may eventually experience a “blow-back” of cannabis regulations onto vineyards, Fussell noted that the lines between the two aren’t always so clear.
“This idea that cannabis and wine are separate in some respects is true, but we are already seeing examples of the lines blurring,” said Fussell. “Mike Benziger and Erin Gore are great examples of folks successful in the wine business who are diversifying publically. These are pillars in the industry breaking down barriers and displaying true leadership and need to be honored for their leadership. There are many more who are chomping at the bit to get involved, but are not stepping out into the light.”
Fussell explained, “Another way the industries are blurring is that there are actual cannabis/wine products being developed, despite regulation. Alcohol free, THC wines.”
Fussell noted that, “Based on the ‘ag’ commissioner reports Sonoma County is dropping vegetable production (aka food production). We need to be able to give farmers another option for growing and diversifying their revenue and cannabis is that opportunity.”
“The economic impact per acre is massive,” explained Fussell. “For example look at the value of the Sonoma County winegrape industry that has been created. That takes around 60,000 acres. An equal and many say greater potential value is possible on just around 500 acres. That is an incredible potential efficiency gain. We need to continue to be smart about land use policies, but also open the doors for more opportunity for our landowners and partners. Is Sonoma County going to be a place just for those who have already made it, or will we give opportunities for young farmers and the middle class?”
“Land owners lease their land to the wine industry with vineyard management contracts for wine
grapes,” said Fussell. “If we want to preserve our land base agricultural heritage, we need to give the option to landowners to diversify the value they can create from responsibly managed agricultural projects.”
“Are there issues related to cannabis as a nascent, emerging industry? Yes, but we don’t shut the doors to opportunity because of that,” insisted Fussell. “We engage in the tough work of dialogue, of direct eye to eye problem solving as stakeholders and residents of this county. We do that with water issues, we do that with labor issues. We can’t just fight it out with online petitions and by cramming Tuesday supervisor meetings. We get together on our own to dive in and address concerns and develop solutions that are a “win-win” and that our leaders can more easily endorse.”
At the Sonoma County Cannabis Advisory Group meeting, Advisory Group member Brandon Levine addressed how regulations are already losing the county revenue. He said more regulations are being discussed that will create even more of an exodus of cannabis growers from Sonoma County. He also told the board that he would be selling two Sonoma County properties for that same reason.
Levine’s company, Mercy Wellness had been selling predominantly cannabis from Sonoma County, but the county’s restrictions have effectively put those growers out of business. Levine pointed out the revenue that has left the county with those growers.
Sonoma County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins said that cannabis and other agriculture are clearly delineated in California and she supports this delineation vocally in meetings. She feels this delineation would keep the cannabis regulations from affecting other agriculture. Hopkins also noted that cannabis cultivation has helped many local small farmers survive as they added in the lucrative crop.
Levine said he thought it important that all agricultural industries take a close look at what restrictions are being placed on the cannabis industry because cannabis has a small footprint in comparison to other agriculture, such as grapes, which for instance require more water. Levine is proud of the efforts being made by his company to lessen their energy footprint, such as the use of LED lighting.
Levine has lived in Sonoma County for more than 30 years and said that like most of Sonoma County, his company likes to ‘buy local’ but the restrictions placed on the cannabis industry is proving detrimental to that endeavor.
Attorney Omar Figueroa is also a member of the Sonoma County Cannabis Advisory Group. He said, “It would behoove the wine industry to pay attention to, and support, the regulated cannabis industry in California. Unless the wine industry is vigilant, today’s onerous cannabis regulations could very well be a preview of future wine regulations.”
For more information on how the emerging cannabis industry impacts wine, check out the upcoming Wine & Weed Symposium in Santa Rosa, August 2, 2018.