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Bob Echter, at podium, and CEO of the Leichtag Foundation, Jim Farley, attend subcommittee hearing on marijuana cultivation. Photo by Aaron Burgin
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Cannabis activists, opponents clash at subcommittee hearing

ENCINITAS − Supporters and detractors of recreational cannabis cultivation and use staked out their positions to a City Council subcommittee in Encinitas, which is considering allowing cultivation as a way to buoy its flagging agricultural sector.

The three-hour April 12 meeting, headed by Encinitas councilmen Tony Kranz and Joe Mosca, is the first in a series of meetings before the subcommittee provides recommendations to the entire panel.

No decisions were made at the meeting, but clear lines were drawn on both sides of the issue, including two of the largest farming operations in Encinitas who came out in support of the proposal, and several noted anti-drug activists, who implored the council to consider the message the proposal would send to the area’s youth.

Cannabis cultivation has been a controversial subject that cities have grappled with in the wake of the passage of Proposition 64, which legalized recreational cannabis use created a complex system of regulations on top of the state’s existing regulations on medicinal cannabis. But the rules left issues such as growing the plant for cities to decide.

Encinitas voters supported Prop. 64 by a 64-36 margin, the largest margin in the county. But voters two years earlier voted against medical cannabis storefronts. The city formed the subcommittee to explore the dichotomy and determine if cultivation would be appropriate.

Farmers and the agricultural community, which is largely a conservative group, have openly supported cannabis cultivation due to its highly lucrative nature, which can allow their businesses to stay afloat.

Bob Echter, owner of Dramm and Echter, Encinitas’ largest remaining cut flower farm, reiterated his call for the council to allow farmers to diversify their operations with a small amount of cannabis cultivation, which he said would stave off his company’s demise.

Echter said that new minimum wage requirements, the cost of water and cheaper business operations abroad have squeezed domestic agriculture operations to the brink of extinction.

“The viability of commercial agriculture in Encinitas is at risk,” Echter said.

Echter showed a large map of his Encinitas Ranch-adjacent property, which showed the proposed cannabis farming operation only occupying a small section of the farm.

Jim Farley, CEO of the Leichtag Foundation, which owns the largest piece of agriculturally zoned property in the city − the former Paul Ecke Ranch − also spoke in support of Echter’s request.

Farley said that the Leichtag Foundation is not considering growing cannabis, but supported any proposal that would allow the next generation of farmers to thrive in Encinitas.

“We are talking about jobs that will demand advanced education and the skillset necessary to grow the farmers of the future,” Farley said. “Giving farmers a way to diversify … should be viewed as something to celebrate.”

Another organization, Rancho Santa Fe-based Rancho Tissue Technologies, also spoke in favor of allowing cannabis laboratories to operate in Encinitas. Susana Vanzie-Canton, the outfit’s managing director, said the lab is a clean, sterile environment where they grow, among other things, cloned baby cannabis plants for research purposes.

On the other side of the debate were speakers like Judi Strang of the San Diego Alliance for Drug Free Youth, who helped spearhead the 2014 defeat of Measure F, which would have legalized medicinal cannabis storefronts in Encinitas.

Strang and others said that legalizing cultivation would send the message to kids that cannabis use was acceptable, despite it’s federal classification as a Schedule 1 narcotic.

“I think in the end, we need to care about are not the farmers, and not the other adults who can take care of themselves, but the children who you are sending these messages to,” Strang said.

Opponents said they believed Encinitas residents’ overwhelming support of Prop. 64 was less about allowing storefronts and cultivation and more about allowing adult users to consume cannabis without fear of law enforcement sentences.

“I don’t want to see Encinitas as a leader in safe, clean marijuana processing,” said Mary Parrish Sheridan, one of several speakers against the cultivation proposal.

Kranz and Mosca asked a number of questions to speakers about various issues surrounding marijuana cultivation, including potential security measures, banking requirements that would ensure the city would be able to properly tax the businesses, and odor control.