By Geoffrey Taylor, MA
If you haven’t noticed by now, I’ve got an affinity for hemp farming, and cannabis ain’t too far off. Though my own experiences in the realm of these industries vary, I can say one thing for certain: Kern County and its long-standing prohibition of cannabis is depriving local farmers of the opportunity to create jobs, keeping our local governments back from collecting valuable tax revenue, and creating a thriving illicit cannabis market in our own backyard. Like so many other hot button issues around us, it’s time for a change.
After a string of recent local events – the raiding and closure of illicit dispensaries by law enforcement and a massive residential explosion from an illicit cannabis extract laboratory – it’s time to start reexamining how we can turn these types of issues into exceptions to the rule.
According to the Bakersfield Californian, Kern County Sheriff’s Department raided four unlicensed cannabis dispensaries across Bakersfield Metro in February 2020. The other incident, an illicit extraction operation using volatile solvents, was located within the Seven Oaks neighborhood of Bakersfield and occurred in January 2020, injuring two men and a dog. If we want to see our neighborhoods free from dangerous laboratories and underground, unregulated dispensaries, then it is time for Kern County to act and open the commercial cannabis industry to our upstanding and enterprising agricultural community.
Neighboring Santa Barbara County gave their agricultural industry a major boost in 2016 when they allowed grey market cannabis operators to transition to legality through a process of temporary-to-permanent licensure, both at the state and county levels. The county’s once-thriving cut flower industry was revived with a whole different kind of flower.
I’m not saying their approach was perfect or that they haven’t seen their share of issues, but overall, the County generated $6.7 million in the 2019-20 cycle from only 36 licensed producers, according to an October 2019 article from SLO New Times. Kern County has a substantially larger population and could open a much larger amount of agricultural and industrial zoned areas for operation. This could correlate to a much larger intake of revenue from cultivation, manufacturing, distribution, and retail operators across the county. Santa Barbara County went one step further in limiting maximum countywide production to 1,575 acres of inland cultivation and 186 acres of cultivation in coastal zones in an effort to offset a rapidly growing cannabis industry.
Another largely agricultural county, Monterey County, has seen an explosion of agricultural producers further diversifying their holdings in the cannabis realm. According to the Monterey Weekly Times from December 2019, the county has collected over $23.3 million in taxation solely from cannabis cultivation. The county has used commercial cannabis tax revenue to fund parks, homeless shelters, paving of county parking lots and other useful public-oriented projects.
According to a September 2019 report from the University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources (UCANR) “most local jurisdictions place limitations on field sizes, and these limitations can encourage small-scale farming. […] While local permits may provide an avenue for local governments to protect small farmers.” This essentially means that the State of California has worked to encourage small scale producers, allowing many small family growers and farmers to integrate cannabis into their existing business models.
Jurisdictions across the San Joaquin Valley have passed commercial cannabis ordinances that encourage responsible production and generate significant tax revenue. For example, the city of Farmersville in Tulare County has an 8.75% tax rate on licensed cannabis operations outside cultivation within the city limit and a $12 per square foot tax rate on cultivation. Nearby Woodlake, also located in Tulare County, charges a 5% tax rate on non-cultivation operations and $6 per square foot tax rate on cultivation. Since launching their commercial cannabis ordinance in 2017, the city of only 8,000 people has generated over $400,000 in tax revenue as of June 2019.
When we look to other San Joaquin Valley Jurisdictions such as city of Coalinga, county of San Joaquin, and county of Yolo, we can see a trend in opening the proverbial doors to the agricultural community. City and county leaders in each jurisdiction have shown time and time again that embracing their agricultural heritage means extending commercial cannabis opportunities to existing growers.
What this all comes down to is dollars and sense. The potential tax revenue that Kern County can generate from strictly regulating a legal industry will help to offset the potential expenditures associated with increased enforcement against non-compliant and illicit operations. Additionally, by regulating commercial cannabis operations countywide, our county leaders can help Kern County producers to position for the future.
As federal legalization of cannabis is likely to occur within the next ten years, Kern County can work hand-in-hand with cannabis business operators to position our county to become a leader in the future national and international cannabis export market. In the same way Kern-farmed carrots, almonds, and other commodities are enjoyed globally, the potential for a robust commercial cannabis industry in our county is inextricably linked to our longtime agricultural productivity and feeding the world from the fertile soils of our region.
Whether this becomes a reality is up to local leaders. Are you ready to take the steps necessary to usher our robust agricultural industry into a new wave of opportunities in the ever-growing commercial cannabis industry? Or are you content with archaic bans, moratoriums and enforcement on an industry that can position our county as a global leader in yet another commodity segment? The choice is yours.