By Janet Perry | Special to the Sun
As Sonoma County Supervisors weigh 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 a Mary meeting of the Sonoma County Cannabis 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 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 of organic cannabis cultivation, processing and packaging. 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.
“The state 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 (it) difficult to do business in.”
“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. These are pillars in the industry breaking down barriers and displaying true leadership and need to be honored for their leadership.”
Fussell said that another way the industries are blurring is that there are actual cannabis/wine products being developed, despite regulation – “alcohol free, THC wines.”
Cannabis advocates say the industry offers farmers another option for growing and diversifying their revenue.
“The economic impact per acre is massive,” Fussell said. “For example look at the value of the Sonoma County winegrape industry. That takes around 60,000 acres. An equal, and many say greater potential, value is possible on just around 500 acres of weed, he said.
“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,” Fussell believes. “We need to continue to be smart about land use policies, but also open the doors for more opportunity.”
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.”
Yes, Fusell acknowledges. there are issues related to cannabis as a nascent, emerging industry,” but don’t shut the doors to opportunity because of that,” insisted Fussell. “We engage in the tough work of dialogue, and direct 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, Fussell said. The best approach is to “dive in and address concerns and develop solutions that are a win-win, and that our leaders can more easily endorse.”
This piece was first published by Wineindustryadvisor.com. For more information on how the emerging cannabis industry impacts wine, check out the upcoming Wine & Weed Symposium in Santa Rosa, August 2. Wine-weed.com.