There are currently no licenses for a medical marijuanna growing operation in Cache County, and some County Council members want to keep it that way — or at least restrict it as much as possible.
When asked by Council Member Dave Erickson at Tuesday’s Cache County Council Meeting if it was possible to not allow any operations in the county, Chris Harrild replied, “no.”
“If your option is to not allow it anywhere, you allow it everywhere, because of the state requirements,” said the director of development services. “If we don’t adopt something that refines where it goes, it applies to the entire A10 zone, and it’s permitted by the state.”
As Council Member Paul Borup brought up at the meeting, marijuana is illegal at the federal level, though 36 individual states — including Utah — have voted to allow medical usage.
Where to grow
Under the Medical Cannabis Act signed by then-Gov. Gary Herbert on Dec. 3, 2018, cultivation of medical marijuana is allowed in agricultural or industrial zones. While Cache County doesn’t have many industrial zones, much of the open space in the valley is in the A10 agricultural zone.
In order to have more control over where such an operation could exist in the county, the council is considering creating a new agricultural zone or an overlay zone — an “A420 zone,” as the council joked, in reference to the slang “420” referring to marijuana.
“What’s critical is with the overlay zone, it does give you a check,” Harrild said. “If someone came in and said, ‘We want to put this here,’ it gives the council the authority to say, ‘We don’t think that’s a good spot,’ and you can deny the request for a rezone, like any other rezone.”
But it’s a tricky line to walk, according to John Luthy, the chief civil deputy in the county attorney’s office, because if the zone is “so miniscule that (the use is) essentially outlawed,” it’s no longer compliant with state code.
Another aspect that makes planning complicated is the potential passing of House Bill 171, which “prohibits a municipality or county from restricting the type of crop that may be grown in certain areas.”
“They want landowners to have freedom to use their land and if it’s a legal crop, they ought to be able to grow it,” Luthy said. “Well, it conflicts with what we’re talking about right now. If that bill were to pass, then you can’t say this ag zone can have medical marijuana, and this ag zone can’t, because that law would say you can’t restrict what crops grow in an ag zone.”
Council Member Nolan Gunnell told The Herald Journal “the tide is changing” in terms of perception of cannabis, and the county needs to keep an open mind.
“Whether I think it’s great or not, I can’t make a decision at this time,” he said. “But we need to be open … to keep local agriculture open and growing. Agriculture is important to the valley.”
On a related note, Gunnell knows several hemp growers in the area who have turned to the product as a more profitable option compared to the old standards of corn and hay.
“Agriculture is important to the state, and we need it to be profitable,” he said. “We need to see if (cannabis production) can be viable and can be profitable so these guys can keep their farms.”
To that end, Gunnell suggested looking at where in the valley would be best suited for growth, such as water and irrigation access.
Other items of concern discussed by the council, such as proximity to schools and size of the operation’s building, are determined by the Utah Medical Cannabis Act, and therefore don’t need to be addressed in local code.
The state limited the number of licenses for medical marijuana growers in the state to eight. Only half of the companies awarded licenses — which costs $100-125,000 just to apply, Harrild said — are Utah-based companies.
“It’s very lucrative,” said Jaydee Gunnell, with Utah State University Extension. “Having talked to the Department of Ag, the problem is that there’s a lot of out-of-state interest on those permits. There’s big money that comes in with medical marijuana, and so if you just do an overlay, there’s nothing to stop big corporations from putting it wherever they want.”
The Utah Department of Agriculture and Food — where former Cache County Executive Craig Buttars took the helm just this month — is in charge of all licensing and monitoring of medical marijuana cultivation operations.
The current code allows for only 10 cultivation licenses — leaving two open, currently — though can be expanded to 15 if the Department of Ag and Food determines the need.