Q&A with Supervisor Estelle Fennell

The Emerald Tribune

Statewide legalization is on the ballot for next week, as well as Humboldt County’s own Commercial Marijuana Cultivation Measure. To get an overview of how we got here and why, we sat down  with Second District Supervisor Estelle Fennell.

Q: How many years have you been serving on Humboldt County’s Board of Supervisors and how has the social climate regarding cannabis legalization changed during your tenure?

EF: I was first elected in 2012, and was just re-elected this year, so it’s been just under four years.

I think things really shifted when the state started stepping in with the Medical Marijuana Regulation and Safety Act. When the state started looking at that seriously, things began to shift quite rapidly, and for the first time we had state regulators visit Garberville to talk about the future of cannabis regulation.

Q: How are Humboldt County constituents reacting to that shift?

EF: There are mixed reactions. Let me start by saying the MMRSA was the first attempt at a more comprehensive regulation, you know, Prop 215 was really more of a legal defense than anything else. Our ordinance is pursuant to the MMRSA. What it talks about is making commercial cannabis cultivation legal, and that’s a huge change moving out from a former underground market to a legal market. That’s huge- it’s huge for a county like Humboldt, where everybody knows marijuana cultivation has been going on for a long time.

A lot of people had opinions and questions about the regulations- would they favor big or small farms, what the fees would be for various permits. It wasn’t so much pro or con, but the finer details that got discussed.

Q: What does the ordinance mean for cultivation?

EF: The way it goes is, you have to get a license from the county before you can get a license from the state. So we moved forward with our ordinance to make that possible for local cultivators.

It’s a countywide ordinance that applies to unincorporated areas in Humboldt County, and then the cities have the opportunity to vote yay or nay on allowing commercial cannabis activities within their boundaries. Arcata and Eureka are working on their own city ordinances. The cities of Rio Dell and Fortuna have been very restrictive, and some cities haven’t taken it on at all.estelle-2

Q: Who did you turn to for input when drafting the ordinance?

EF: Oh, all manner of stakeholders. We talked with people involved in the cultivation industry, dispensary owners, people with knowledge of manufacturing, the public in general, environmental groups. We talked with various agencies that would be tasked with overseeing things like enforcement and licensing. We had lots and lots of meetings.

Q: About how much time did it take to come up with something that worked for everyone?

EF: Oh, it’s all like a blur to me now. Let’s see- close to a year.

Q: What kind of restrictions and regulations are built into the ordinance?

EF: Well, under the state restrictions, there are 17 licenses. Our county ordinance addresses cultivation, and then under that we have outdoor, we have what they call mixed light and then we have indoor- so we cover all kinds of cultivation.

Then within all three of those, there are at least two categories: One for existing- and that’s for someone who had an existing grow as of January 2016- and then new grows are on another track.

With regard to where it can be grown, the new grows are very restricted to specific zones. The existing grows are allowed as long as they’re in compliance with the state law and water board regulations. If an existing grow doesn’t meet the standards, they have the option of being eligible for a permit to move their operation to an area that’s in compliance.

Q: What are the size limitations like?

EF: Size limitations are based on square footage, and that’s based on the size of the parcel and land zone. The high end is an acre- that’s the maximum for an outdoor grow. The mixed light maximum is a little less than half an acre, and for indoor the max is 10,000 square feet.

Q: Where do people get permits?

EF: They go to the planning department. Once they go there, they have to get a license from the agricultural commissioner, but that’s a very easy step. It’s about the same as any other agricultural product.

We’re also involved in a pilot track and trace program.

Q: What’s that entail?

EF: It’s basically in place to protect the end user and to guarantee the environmental conditions. If someone has done all that’s required of them at the state and county level, they can get a stamp from the track and trace program that verifies the product was grown in Humboldt County with best management practices. The end user will be able to scan it with their phone and see where it was grown, what strain it is, that kind of thing. All that information will be tied to the stamp. It also allows government to track it in terms of permits being paid.

Q: Who’s going to be in charge of enforcement of these regulations, and how will that be funded?

EF: There are certain built-in fees that pay for implementation as far as the permitting process and all of that. Other parts of enforcement are covered by state law- they have inspectors for water, wildlife, etc.

As far as other enforcement goes, every county has the ability to levy an excise tax. Humboldt County is doing that- it’s on the ballot in November. The excise tax will be paid by the cultivators and cover some of that.

As far as who is going to enforce it- this is going from a criminal situation to a business kind of regulation, so it’s going to be the paper pushers, basically. Now, that’s not to say law enforcement won’t be involved, because, obviously, at least until, or if, recreational passes, there’s still a lot of illegal activity.

We’re kind of in a transition because we’ve had to allocate extra funding to hire planners and conduct an environmental impact report. We’ve actually created a cannabis division in our planning department. It’s kind of impacted us to a certain degree, but we’re hoping that will level off as we move forward.

Q: Are citizens who are strongly opposed to cannabis for any reason paying for any of this with their tax dollars?

EF: For the most part, no. Some of the cost of getting this up and running has been borne by our General Fund. However, as we move forward, it will be self-funded and the only people paying for it will be the cultivators paying the excise tax and the consumers paying the sales tax.

“As far as who is going to enforce it- this is going from a criminal situation to a business kind of regulation, so it’s going to be the paper pushers, basically.”

Q: How do you see recreational legalization affecting the local economy?

EF: I’m not sure at this point. Basically, the elephant in the room for quite a while has been that this underground market has led to a lot of cash in Humboldt County. So how will that transition into a commercial market? The task is going to be to balance it out.

I think that since the state created these regulations, there’s been a real influx of jobs- consultants, manufacturers of greenhouses, water tanks, all of those things.



Q: What kind of new businesses would you like to see created around recreational legalization?

EF: I really believe we will see an increase in tourism and new businesses. That’s a really big part of this. The MMRSA doesn’t allow for onsite consumption, so that precludes a model that a lot of people have come to know colloquially as, “Bud and Breakfast,” where people could come stay at the farm and taste various different strains. There’s an allowance for that in the recreational legislation. People are already talking about giving farm tours and that kind of thing. One key thing for this area is so-called, “value added” products. I definitely think we’ll see more and more businesses along those lines. We’ve already got people applying for permits for that.

Q: Why do you think it’s important for Humboldt County to stay ahead of the curve?

EF: The case has been made time and again that the Humboldt brand is well established. From the perspective of the growers, they’ve been very conscious of being able to move ahead to stay competitive. Their aim is to be ahead of the curve, ensure quality and make sure everyone knows it was grown in an environmentally superior way.

Our ordinance is basically an environmental document that ensures best management practices. I know that people in the industry are working on that, pretty much night and day.

Q: You mentioned you’re going through an EIR- what project is that tied to and who’s paying for it.

EF: That’s an interesting question. Most people think of an EIR as being tied to a particular project. This one is a programmatic EIR that’s applied to an existing industry that’s never been regulated.

The county is the lead agency, so we’re the ones paying for it. It’s definitely an added expense for us, but we have to do it.

Q: How will recreational legalization affect the county ordinance?

EF: Well, if legalization fails, it won’t affect the ordinance at all. If it passes, we would have to look at folding that into the ordinance. I imagine that it wouldn’t be very difficult to adjust the ordinance and the EIR. That was our vision.

Q: How has cultural perception of cannabis changed in light of these new regulations?

EF: I know that, from the perspective of the cannabis industry, we’re known as progressive, but we’re actually a mixed bag in Humboldt County. There is a shift happening. There’s been a lot of resistance to legalization in Humboldt County for a long time, and I’ll be very curious to see how Humboldt votes on the recreational initiative.

I think people are beginning to understand that the drug war has not worked. Prohibition hasn’t stopped the proliferation, and it’s only made life more dangerous for people in the cultivation areas with home invasions and those kinds of things.


“I really believe we will see an increase in tourism and new businesses. That’s a really big part of this.”

Overall, people in Humboldt County have come around to the idea that legalization may be the only way to get things back on an even keel. Even though there are people who are not really comfortable with it, they’re seeing that having it heavily regulated will work better. It’s not like everybody is applauding this, but they are getting used to it.

Q: Where will the revenue from licenses and taxes go?

EF: It’ll stay in the county. The state sales tax through AUMA will only give us a cut, but our excise tax will stay completely in Humboldt County, along with revenue from any fees and licenses that come along.

Q: What do you plan on spending that on?

EF: You don’t have to spell out exactly what you’re going to spend an excise tax on, but we hope to use that money to do remediation on areas that have been hurt by illegal practices, restoring the environment and such. Some will also go to mental health services for children and families.

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

EF: First of all, I want to say that if anyone has any questions, they’re welcome to contact me.

I think the bottom line we’ve all learned over the years is the drug war didn’t stop proliferation in Humboldt County. Making this change is like turning a gigantic ship in mid-course, it really is. My whole thing has been “steady as she goes.” There are challenges ahead, there have been challenges already. I think one of the biggest challenges is making people feel comfortable coming in and working with our government when they’ve been hiding from government for generations. Getting that sense of trust and sense of working together. That’s the challenge, but we are getting there.

I see this as the best way to go, and I wouldn’t have imagined myself saying that years ago.

Supervisor Estelle Fennell represents the Second District on the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors. She can be reached by email at