Planners mull marijuana money

From the 1.26.11 issue. To read all of the articles in the Press, subscribe.

By Daniel Mintz
Press Staff Writer

The county’s economy is more diverse than most people realize, the Planning Commission has been told, but assessing one of its most significant contributors remains elusive.
At their Jan. 20 meeting, commissioners noted that marijuana production is missing from the economic graphs and pie charts that accompany the economic development chapter of the draft General Plan Update.
County Economic Development Director Jacqueline Debets presented a snapshot summary of local wage generation and the industries that deliver it. Upon learning that assessments of various industries are based on payroll data, commissioners quickly asked about the industry whose payouts are often delivered under the table.
“Obviously, if you’re growing marijuana, you’re not paying taxes so it wouldn’t show up,” said Commissioner Mel Kreb.
He noted the high level of awareness promoted by the emergence of Proposition 19 and added, “Somehow, as we move along here, we’re going to have to bring the elephant into the living room and talk about it.”
And that’s what commissioners did, with Kreb fostering the discussion by further noting that the industries being analyzed are “probably being supported by people paying cash.”
“I’m not sure how we would treat marijuana,” Debets said. “It’s very difficult to get data on it.”
Talk drifted away from pot, with Debets explaining how economic contributions are gauged and how industries like information technology have grown while forestry and logging has shrunk.
Commissioner Denver Nelson brought the elephant back into the room when he related that a few years ago, he’d mentioned marijuana at an economic conference and “it was like I used the F-word in public.”
He added, “No one wanted to talk about it – at least people are talking about it now.”
Nelson doubted the veracity of a color-coded pie chart showing percentages of economic contribution. “I hate to say this, but there’s a lot of people that supplement their income in all of those industries by growing dope,” he said. “Marijuana is the real growth industry in this county and there isn’t even a color there.”
He suggested “bright green” and told Debets, “If we are going to base the future, ten years from now, on what’s going on here, you really have to include marijuana whether you like it or not.”
“It’s a big subject – I’m not sure how much you want me to get into it,” Debets replied. “At this moment, I think it would detract us.”
Community Development Services Director Kirk Girard reined in the discussion by telling commissioners that marijuana is difficult to handle from an economic development policy perspective.
“Are you suggesting that we should promote the growth of marijuana, to develop the economy or perhaps retard it?” he asked.
Girard said the only above-the-surface aspect is medicinal marijuana, and “it’s a touchy subject because that really is just a crack in the door of the much larger illegal market.”
He described marijuana production as “a policy black hole” that “truly is a hands-off subject” from a planning perspective.
Commissioners continued to note its relevance, however. Commissioner Dennis Mayo said that at an economic forum held during the last election cycle, building contractors proclaimed that they’re having a hard time hiring plumbers, electricians and other specialists because “they’re growing pot.”
Mayo asked if pot money is being “captured” in economic considerations.
“It’s cash circulating in the economy,” Debets replied. “From an economic point of view – it’s good, cash is good to an economy.”
But she added that a downside is that it “distracts labor” and sways people away from learning marketable job skills and eventually securing stable wages and benefits.
As for the payroll percentage contributions of the less interesting but more reliable industries – government is at 14 percent, education and research accounts for 12 percent and health services contributes 11 percent of the county’s total. Ten percent is from retail, six percent tourism, six percent construction, five percent professional services and four percent is from manufacturing.
Arts and culture, media and information services, fishing, dairy and specialty agriculture all contributed one percent shares but Debets pointed out that even the “slivers” on the pie chart represent contributions of “tens, twenties of millions of dollars.”
Commissioners began reviewing the chapter’s goal statements and continued the hearing to Feb. 10.
The Jan. 27 hearing on the county’s controversial plan to rezone properties for low income housing was cancelled because of commissioner absences and was rescheduled for Feb. 17.

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