Cannabis regulations in California counties
Cannabis regulations in California counties

Editor’s Note: California Cannabis Voice executive director and civil rights attorney Matt Kumin put together a short primer to help Humboldt County, California, draft an ordinance based on community stakeholder discussions. This is a slightly modified version of his memo — only a few small changes were made to improve readability on the web.

Legislation, whether by a citizen’s initiative or a legislative body, generally follows a similar format.  There is initial language focusing on general principles or purposes for the law, followed by a definition section, then sub-sections which are designed to achieve the stated purposes.

Regulatory Boundaries to Consider

A County law cannot regulate matters that are solely the province of the state such as criminal law. But county (or city) ordinances can, and often do, regulate land-use and zoning. Counties (or cities) can also pass laws that are in the same topic area as a state, and can even exceed state standards, sometimes referred to as “concurrent jurisdiction.” The federal government, for example, sets a floor for minimum wages nationally but allows states to exceed those standards. Cities or counties can enact even higher standards. Thus, the federal minimum wage is currently $7.25 per hour, California is $9.00 per hour and San Francisco sets the rate at $10.74 per hour.

General Purposes and Specific Provisions

While the group may agree generally on certain core values for local regulation of cannabis, such as no harm to the environment, and can even articulate those in the precatory language, how those values or purposes translate into actual, workable provisions is the creative work of the group.

Let’s use the environment as an example. Specific provisions designed to protect the County’s environment can take numerous forms. For example, you could enact a “carrots and sticks” approach, incentivizing good environmental behaviors while punishing bad ones. Incentives could include reductions in fees or granting additional privileges, such as access to loan programs.

For instance, you could incentive the installation of water catchment systems by reducing or locking in annual fees or by granting privileges such as allowing greater production. Harming the environment, on the other hand, can lead to fines and loss of growing or production privileges, or other appropriate and reasonable penalties.

Similarly, where cannabis cultivation and/or production takes place, typically a zoning question, is well within the province of a County ordinance. Many cities and counties in California have addressed that in their local ordinances.

Drafters Face a Complex Task

The above is meant to provide general parameters only. How you ultimately frame and draft is up to you.

Drafters of legislation face complex issues as they drill down and draft specific provisions designed to positively effect the desired purposes of a law. Starting with a common set of principles and values, or returning to those principles in order to break impasses, will help keep the focus and the process moving forward.


  1. These ordinances need to strictly favor the small grower. It is the large scale grows mostly on TPZ lands that have been environmentally irresponsible, although not as irresponsible as the massive clear-cuts on watersheds that had been done here in the 70s and 80s…
    Most of the growers I know have small grows that supplement their incomes from jobs that they have. The income from their jobs is usually not a livable income. The legalization effort in California will become another attack on the working poor, if we don’t influence the law to favor the small grower.

  2. I know this is an old thread, but many don’t know that under new state law in California counties have the right to do pretty much anything they want on cannabis, including professional business activities, health and safety and any tax they like.

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