Code enforcement, not sheriff, to license cannabis businesses

Cannabis business licensing in San Diego County will move from the Sheriff’s Department to the county’s Planning & Development Services, substantially lowering fees for the service.

On Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to transfer responsibility for the licenses for existing legal marijuana businesses, switching it from a law enforcement to a code enforcement function.

“Many other jurisdictions have made similar transitions or established new cannabis licensing programs housed within planning or development services departments,” the board letter on the item said.

The decision is part of a broader plan to expand cannabis licensing in the unincorporated county. It affects the five existing legal marijuana operations but doesn’t include measures to authorize or regulate new businesses.

Until now, the sheriff’s deputies have been responsible for conducting background checks on personnel with cannabis businesses, as well as safety, security and compliance inspections of their operations. Under the new system, code enforcement officers will perform those tasks, using the same Live Scan system that deputies have used.

The change will cut license fees by about two-thirds, from $49,460 under the Sheriff’s Department to $16.673 with Planning & Development Services, and will take effect on Dec. 16. Business operators will receive prorated refunds for the difference between the fees they have already paid this year and the reduced fees under the new system.

Although they don’t all agree on plans to expand cannabis operations in the unincorporated area, supervisors said the change would free up the sheriff’s deputies time for law enforcement by relieving them of administrative duties. Supervisor Jim Desmond said he disagrees with legalized marijuana but believes licensing can be handled safely by code enforcement officers.

“The reality is we need the sheriff’s department to focus on what they do, which is keeping us safe,” Board Chair Nathan Fletcher said. “We want them to continue to focus on cracking down on illegal and unlicensed cannabis operations in the unincorporated area, and we want to provide a reliable business process and permit.”

Some speakers opposed the change and said legal marijuana businesses should be subject to law enforcement authority, arguing that the potential for mental and physical health problems from cannabis use calls for greater oversight.

“It seems ironic we’re discussing marijuana business licensing while the county struggles with historically high levels of overdoses,” said Joe Eberstein, program manager for the San Diego County Marijuana Prevention Initiative, referring to the county’s surge in deaths from illicit fentanyl, a powerful opioids that is unrelated to cannabis.

In a board action Tuesday, the supervisors approved plans to spend settlement money they expect to receive from their lawsuits against opioid manufacturers on efforts including drug prevention, treatment and counseling programs.

The transfer of cannabis licensing authority from the Sheriff’s Department must include coordination with law enforcement officials who have become “experts in marijuana licensing,” Eberstein said, and should include “action on public health, minor access and operations that look into underage availability.”

Joel Weisberger, owner of White Mountain Farms cannabis farm in Oceanside and chairman of the San Diego County Farm Bureau Cannabis Working Group, said current marijuana businesses don’t require Sheriff’s Department supervision. Switching licensing authority to Planning & Development Services would be the most cost-effective way to regulate the industry, he said.

“In order to ensure the legal cannabis market can survive, it is imperative to keep barriers to entry as low as possible,” Weisberger said.

Anthony Avalos, a member of the San Diego County Cannabis Stakeholders Group, agreed, calling the shift a “progressive and necessary step toward a socially equitable cannabis program.”