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Commentary: Sonoma County supervisors correct to require environmental review for cannabis cultivation

The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors should be applauded for doing the right thing this week and ordering a full Environmental Impact Report before taking the next steps in considering cannabis cultivation in Sonoma County.

The Supervisors overcame heavy lobbying and pressure from the corporate cannabis industry that wanted to open the floodgates to commercial operations on up to 65,000 acres all over the county that are smack in the middle of rural neighborhoods, farming and vineyards.

The cannabis industry wanted to give the commissioner of agriculture almost complete power to approve commercial cannabis operations – without public notice, without notifying neighbors, without a hearing, and without environmental review. That would have been a fabulous gift to big cannabis – the corporate entities busy cornering the cannabis market across the country, and who are already snatching up parcels in Sonoma County in anticipation of this windfall.

Fortunately, the local community rose up and demanded the full Environmental Impact Report from the Board of Supervisors so that before any commercial cannabis operations can proceed the county, its residents and voters, can consider the impacts of water, odors, fire safety and the potential for violence by possibly placing cannabis grows in striking distance of our schools, which is already proposed by one commercial grower in Petaluma on Pepper Road.

We don’t oppose cannabis – either its cultivation or its use. What we do oppose, strongly, are regulations in Sonoma County that could see a proliferation of commercial grow operations overnight without strong protections and public oversight. Every grow operation proposed for the county must go through the same stringent state environmental review process as any other project, a well-established process that protects the community and environment and provides a mechanism for affected residents, vintners, and farmers to have a voice. It is also required under California law.

A 2019 study prepared for Napa County estimated that one acre of cannabis would guzzle 1.1 million gallons of water per harvest.

This is unconscionable when the county is wrestling with a dire water shortage, in a state where climate change is making drought the new normal.

Cannabis cultivation also produces a pungent, skunk-like odor that is overwhelming, and will carry across neighboring farms, homes, parks, hospitals and schools. Anyone who has merely driven past a grow operation near a highway knows how pervasive and unwelcome the odor can be. Imagine living nearby and having that odor pervade your home, or children subjected to it day after day in the classroom. Imagine the effect on any vineyard tasting room in the vicinity -- and what that would do to devastate that business and the tourism that goes along with it.

Cannabis may be legal under California law, but it remains illegal under federal law, and the illegal market is still larger and more lucrative than the legal one. Criminals know they can make an easy buck by stealing plants or processed cannabis from a legal grow and then selling it on the black market.

All of this is why the Board of Supervisors did the right thing by voting to study, through a full EIR, where and at what level cannabis could be safely grown in the county. Residents need protections and we want full public disclosure and input.

Signed by rural Sonoma County residents Ron Evenich, No Pot on Pepper; Craig Harrison, Bennett Valley Citizens for Safe Development; Deborah Eppstein, Save Our Sonoma Neighborhoods; and Brantly Richardson, Neighborhood Coalition.

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