Pot Has A Shot

Cannabis inches toward legalization in county

By Howard Schmidt
September 2022

The Sacramento County Board of Supervisors gave cannabis fans hope that commercial marijuana operations could become legal in the unincorporated area. Currently, the county prohibits commercial cultivation and sales, but that could change if voters approve a cannabis tax in November.

Or maybe not.

By a narrow vote, the board agreed to ask voters to establish a special tax on gross receipts from cannabis businesses. The money would fund county homeless services, including along the American River Parkway. County staff estimates the tax could generate $5.1 million to $7.7 million annually.

But the process for making cannabis legal is more complicated than just putting a tax question on the ballot.

State law allows local governments to regulate cannabis. In Sacramento County, only the cities of Sacramento and Isleton permit marijuana operations. The county and other cities bar the pot industry everywhere else.

The prohibition will continue even if voters approve the tax.

Permitting marijuana requires the county to establish a local regulatory scheme. While that only takes three supervisors in support, none have been willing to engage in cannabis policy discussions without assurances of an accompanying tax.

Getting the tax question on the November ballot wasn’t easy. At first county staff recommended a general fund tax requiring agreement of four supervisors and a simple majority vote by the public.

Supervisor Phil Serna described the tax as a way to collect “valuable revenue” to fund general government functions such as regional parks. With Rich Desmond and Patrick Kennedy, Serna had three votes in the yes column. The fourth proved elusive.

Supervisor Sue Frost was opposed and Don Nottoli categorically rejected the idea, telling Serna, “It’s not about the dollars.” Nottoli expressed concern about the impact cannabis would have on rural communities.

The tax measure looked dead. Then Serna maneuvered and arranged for staff to devise a special tax measure that needed support from only three supervisors to reach the ballot.

The trick required the proposed tax to identify a special purpose (funding homeless services, including those on the parkway). Legally, this means two-thirds of voters must approve the tax in November, not just a simple majority.
Nottoli and Frost still said no, but only three votes were needed.

If voters approve the tax vote in November, things could get more complicated. The entire county gets to vote, though the tax applies only to unincorporated communities. The regulatory process will have to reflect that distinction.

Frost and Nottoli are irked the tax could lose among unincorporated voters but still pass with help from voters in surrounding cities, including Sacramento, where cannabis is already allowed.

Desmond says he will take into consideration how the unincorporated area votes, explaining it “will inform my decision on policy discussions and hope others, too.”

As it stands, legal cannabis is advancing for the unincorporated area. But passing the tax measure is no guarantee there are enough votes on the Board of Supervisors to adopt a regulatory program that pleases the cannabis industry and its fans.

Howard Schmidt worked on federal, state and local levels of government, including 16 years for Sacramento County. He can be reached at howardschmidt218@aol.com. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento.

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