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Cash for crackdown: Sac PD wants money to battle illegal marijuana grows

The Sacramento Police Department wants to create a team dedicated to illegal marijuana grow houses, and it's asking city council to allocate funds for that.

The Sacramento Police Department busted more than 600 illegal marijuana grow houses over two months earlier this year, in a 60-day campaign from mid-Aug. to mid-October.

That's according to a report presented to Sacramento City Council members at Tuesday's meeting.

Come January 1, the state will start allowing the sale of recreational cannabis, and stepped-up enforcement is just one part of the preparation for that.

Despite busting hundreds of illegal grow houses this year, Sac PD wrote in a report to council members, "a more consistent staffing model is required to significantly reduce the number of illegal cannabis grows...We understand that a lack of enforcement encourages illegal activity and erodes the public’s confidence in our ability to effectively regulate the cannabis industry."

The department wants to create a dedicated team of three sergeants and 12 officers, costing an estimated $700,000 to $1.1 million to fund through June.

Sac PD proposes paying for that with fines from the illegal growers plus city taxes paid by existing cannabis-related businesses, like medical marijuana dispensaries.

Sacramento's so-called Pot Czar, Joe Devlin, said grow houses are illegal and different from small manufacturing businesses that have been operating under the table for awhile now.

"There are folks out there that make small batches of topicals or edibles or tinctures," Devlin explained. "They've been doing it for some amount of time, they're just not huge manufacturers but they do have a customer base."

Since these businesses have a following, Devlin said, "we want to make sure that those products are tested. We want to make sure that they are compliant with state standards. And we want them to ultimately operate within that legal framework and pay taxes as well."

The city also wants to create a program to give people of color, women and veterans a shot at running a legal and compliant cannabis-related small business.

"Taking those individuals and their businesses and their business ideas and converting them into an actual legal cannabis business that can participate within that economy," said Devlin.

"There are minority-, women- and veteran-owned businesses out there that are either looking to participate in this economy or are currently in this space that may have some barriers to entry," he added. "Such as just general business knowledge or how the state and local permitting process works."

Part of that increased access includes lowering the permit cost for small businesses. Currently, all cannabis-related businesses entering into the marketplace have to pay a $30,000 permit. The city is proposing a tiered permitting process, which would lower fees for the smallest of businesses to as low as $3,000.

"It's not about lowering barriers or expectations. It is about meeting the market where it currently and is in reality," said Devlin.

The city would help educate the owners of those small businesses with a proposed "small business support center," Devlin added. "Where small businesses can go and get the accounting or business plan help that they need, compliance help that they need to operate successfully within this industry."

To be clear, these proposed programs would not add marijuana storefronts to neighborhoods. The city has a moratorium on storefront dispensaries it doesn't plan on lifting right now, he continued.

Rather, the small businesses impacted by these proposed changes would be on the manufacturing side of the cannabis industry. While those small businesses would need to be located in an appropriately zoned commercial district - and not in a residential area - they would not be selling out of storefronts.

The City of Sacramento has 30 medical marijuana dispensaries, and coming up at next week's city council meeting, members will discuss how many of those may be eligible to start selling recreational marijuana in 2018. Devlin said it likely won't be all of them.

Also at next week's big city council meeting, members will vote on ordinances related to marijuana delivery as well as establishing that program to help small business owners.

Like Sacramento, other major California cities - including LA and San Francisco - are working on how to roll out and regulate recreational weed. Some cities and counties, however, are opting to ban the substance altogether, which state law allows.

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