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BY THEO DOUGLAS Californian staff writer email@example.com
Environmental experts have been saying since at least 2011 that medical marijuana cultivation costs billions of dollars a year in electricity and is a major contributor of greenhouse gases.
Starting this week, attorneys for the county of Kern will have a month to determine whether Measure G, its 2012 ordinance regulating where medical marijuana collectives and dispensaries may locate, is part of the problem or part of the solution.
The county of Kern could be served as soon as Wednesday with a written ruling ordering it to "conduct a preliminary review" of Measure G during the next 30 days to determine if it is exempt from the California Environmental Quality Act.
If the county finds that Measure G does not adversely affect the environment, and complies with CEQA, then it should remain in effect.
However, if the county decides that higher-level environmental review is required -- an initial study or a formal EIR -- or if Kern County Superior Court Judge Kenneth Twisselman II is not satisfied with the review, the judge said in court last month he will invalidate Measure G.
"Essentially, what the order says is what the judge said at the hearing we were all at last month," said Devin Brown, deputy counsel for Kern County. "It's nothing new to us. We'll have 30 days to return with our plan to comply with the order. At that point we'll hear from the judge."
Measure G says medical marijuana collectives and cooperatives can only operate on industrial land and must be at least a mile from schools, day care centers, churches, public parks and other collectives and cooperatives.
It only applies in unincorporated Kern, not in incorporated cities like Bakersfield, which has its own rules.
Twisselman's decision to make the county review its ordinance is a local entrypoint to a national conversation about the environmental effects of medical marijuana cultivation -- and a statewide discussion about CEQA's purpose.
"It's not uncommon for people to file a CEQA lawsuit if they can't think of any other resort to stop something they don't like," said Sacramento attorney Jim Moose, who spoke in 2011 to a UC Davis conference titled "CEQA at 40."
Long Beach attorney Jamie Hall, whose law firm sued the county on behalf of T.C.E.F. Inc., et al, a group of county medical marijuana patients and patient collectives and cooperatives, disagreed, saying that challenges to medical marijuana statutes using CEQA are new but serious.
In the case, Hall argued that Measure G adversely affects air and water quality by reducing patients' access to medical marijuana -- potentially making them drive farther to get it, or grow their own.
Neither Hall nor Brown was aware of a study of the environmental effects of medical marijuana cultivation in Kern County.
Nationwide, it's a different story.
A 2012 study of "The carbon footprint of indoor Cannabis production" by Evan Mills, published in the international journal Energy Policy, found indoor cultivation in California results in energy expenditures of $3 billion per year.
"This corresponds to the electricity use of 1 million average California homes, (and) greenhouse gas emissions equal to those from 1 million average cars ... ," the study said.
But one of the authors of a June paper written for the Washington state Liquor Control Board on "Environmental Risks and Opportunities in Cannabis Cultivation," said he thinks environmental concerns are secondary to more important issues of drug use and crime.
"My guess is that if you do an environmental impact report on this ordinance, you'll find that the effects are unimportant. I would be quite surprised to (have them) say, 'What an environmental disaster,' " said Michael O'Hare, a professor at the Goldman School of Public Policy at UC Berkeley.
Either way, Hall said the county needs to find out.
"This is unique, but that's part of being a good public servant -- you have to rise to the challenge, not put your head into the sand," Hall said. "This is about holding local agencies to the requirement that they look at the environmental impact of their decisions."