More than 2,300 marijuana business applications were submitted to Humboldt county before Dec. 30, 2016, with more than 1,400 of those submitted in the last two weeks of December. Pictured: Marijuana grown for medical purposes in a greenhouse in Potter Valley, Calif. (Eric Risberg, Associated Press file)

Judge allows hundreds of disputed Humboldt County marijuana biz permits to be considered

A Humboldt County judge this week denied a petition for an enforcement order against the county, sparing hundreds of cannabis business permit applications from possible invalidation.

Superior Court Judge Christopher G. Wilson wrote in his Monday ruling that he found it ironic that the petition used environmental protection arguments to prevent the county from permitting these businesses.

“The court interprets this ordinance as intending to bringing in as many of those unlawful operations ‘out of the cold’ so as to mitigate the environmental damage suggested by these operations,” Wilson wrote.

Wilson stated that the main issue in the petition was the ambiguity in the interpretation of the county’s commercial medical cannabis regulations that took effect in January 2016.

“The county, despite their contrary statements, have the ability to clarify that ambiguity,” Wilson wrote.

County Counsel Jeffrey Blanck said the county can now continue to focus on working through the nearly 2,300 cannabis business permit applications it has received.

“Existing grows are where the issues are, so you’d want more of these to come into compliance,” Blanck said. “And the judge agreed.”

The county’s marijuana ordinance splits marijuana business applicants into two categories — existing and new — which have their own set of regulations and allowances.

The marijuana advocacy organization Humboldt-Mendocino Marijuana Advocacy Group, also known as HUMMAP, filed the enforcement order petition last year alleging the county violated a July 2016 legal agreement it made with the organization by allowing existing medical cannabis growers and business operators to apply for permits by the Dec. 30, 2016, deadline for application submission.

HUMMAP cofounder Robert Sutherland said that the organization would never have made the settlement agreement if it had known the county would be accepting these existing grows. Sutherland also disagreed with the judge’s ruling stating the language in the ordinance was ambiguous.

“We’re disappointed the county decided to go behind our back and change what we thought we had agreed to in the settlement,” he said Wednesday. “For the judge to say they have a right to interpret that ambiguity as they see fit, what they seem to say is they have to right create ambiguity where there is none.”

Sutherland said the group is considering appealing the ruling.

HUMMAP argued the county’s marijuana ordinance prohibits existing marijuana business operators — defined as those that were operating before Jan. 1, 2016 — from applying for permits if they had not also applied for a “good standing” designation by the Aug. 23 deadline. This designation allows these operators to be put on a fast-track for the state’s marijuana licensing process once that comes online in 2018. To be a legal medical marijuana business owner in California, operators must have both state and local licenses or permits.

More than 2,300 marijuana business applications were submitted to the county by the Dec. 30 deadline, with more than 1,400 of those having been submitted in the last two weeks of December alone. A recent review of the applications by the Lost Coast Outpost last week found that about 1,700 applications — or about 75 percent — of the total applications were submitted by existing operators.

Calls to the county Planning and Building Department, which oversees cannabis permitting, were not returned.

HUMMAP argued in its petition that by allowing these existing operators to continue applying for permits past Aug. 23, the county violated a settlement agreement it made with HUMMAP in July 2016. As part of the agreement, the county agreed not to take any “substantive action” to expand the scope of the medical marijuana regulations until it completed a full environmental impact review. The county argued that the “good standing” registration was not a prerequisite for existing growers to obtain a permit and therefore did not violate the settlement agreement.

Wilson ultimately agreed with the county and denied HUMMAP’s petition and request for attorney’s fees.

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