High Hopes

Sungrown Farms is preparing to plant cannabis in old greenhouses near Chualar, on property they purchased in 2015, before the county’s moratorium took effect.

Harborside Health Center got into the cannabis industry almost a decade ago, as one of the first six dispensaries to get licensed by the city of Oakland, the first California jurisdiction to allow dispensaries.

Harborside is a major player in the business, with more than 1,000 patients a day buying from two dispensaries in San Jose and Oakland. A third is underway in San Leandro.

And now Harborside has the green light to grow pot in Salinas Valley greenhouses, despite a moratorium on new cannabis-related businesses.

The County Board of Supervisors approved that prohibition on cannabis last July, intending to give county planners time to write an ordinance clearly regulating the industry. While they work on that ordinance, business leaders were champing at the bit to get started. The County Board of Supervisors voted Feb. 26 to open a loophole in the existing moratorium, allowing businesses a chance to get permits now – if they could prove they’d made a “substantial financial investment” in their businesses prior to July 7, when the moratorium took effect.

As of the Weekly’s deadline, six businesses had applied for exemptions. Four have been granted and two are still pending. Copies of those applications and supporting documents, which include invoices and receipts attempting to show “substantial financial investment,” were obtained by the Weekly via a Public Records Act request, and reflect big spending already underway in the nascent industry.

Harborside’s local arm, Sungrown Farms, claims it spent more than $340,000, including $7,300 on PG&E bills, $5,000 on cloned plants and more than $21,000 on attorney’s fees to the firm L+G.

Johnny Azzopardi, who’s been growing cannabis for a collective called The Hive, showed he spent $7,000 on soil and $30,000 on greenhouse supplies. And Salinas businessman Mike Hackett, operating as River View Farms, says he spent more than $1.1 million renovating dilapidated greenhouses. All three growers – The Hive, Sungrown and River View – were granted exemptions.

Sal Palma, who’d been running a dispensary called Higher Level of Care in the Carmel Rancho shopping center until county officials shut him down last September, also got an exemption.

Two newer applications for grows are still pending. One was filed by Jason Kallen, an organic farmer in Lockwood who’s been growing cannabis hydroponically indoors for years. But he’s aspiring to add cannabis to his outdoor crop mix, and says he spent in the six figures toward that end.

It’s not clear where county officials will come down on Kallen’s request, because their first draft ordinance prohibited outdoor grows entirely.

But that direction might change. When county planners asked the county Planning Commission for feedback March 30, the direction from the commissioners was strong: Farmers should be allowed to farm what they want.

Planning Commissioner Martha Diehl dismissed the fear of growing pot instead of food: “All those grapes are not raisins,” she said. “Our viewshed is certainly influenced by the presence of vineyards, which are for the purpose of making wine, which is not technically food. We have not, in the past, regulated what people plant in their fields.”

Sara Rubin loves long public meetings, red pens and reading (on newsprint). She has been editor of the Monterey County Weekly since 2016, and has been on staff since 2010.

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