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California City Innovates on Brink of Marijuana Boom

In May, Arcata’s City Council voted to rezone an abandoned industrial area to allow for the cultivation, processing and wholesale of medical marijuana and related products

by / August 18, 2015

If there's one thing Arcata, Calif., knows well, it's weed.

Situated in what is known as the Emerald Triangle, the city is a part of a coastal stretch that comprises the largest marijuana-producing region in the world. And Arcata aims to take that production to the next level by creating a Medical Marijuana Innovation Zone.

In May, Arcata’s City Council voted unanimously to rezone an abandoned industrial area to allow for the cultivation, processing and wholesale of medical marijuana and related products.

Should the Innovation Zone comes to pass, Larry Oetker, the city’s community development director, and local businessman Bob Figas envision a new 10,000-square-foot building, an industrial-grade kitchen, testing labs, warehouse space and cultivation areas, along with “small manufacturing spaces” that could be leased to weed-industry startups, the Lost Coast Outpost reported.

Because many growers currently set up shop in family homes in residential neighborhoods -- and ultimately use more electricity than their neighbors -- the local utility service provider instituted a surcharge on such homes. To help solve this problem, the Medical Marijuana Innovation Zone would give growers an approved place to go. And growers within the zone would reap the benefit of Figas’ electricity substation, which allows him to buy electricity from Pacific Gas and Electric at a reduced rate and, in turn, offer electricity to tenants at a considerably lower price.

“We are trying to provide opportunities for more jobs and economic growth in Arcata,” Mayor Michael Winkler told Government Technology. “We want to keep more money in the community and develop more entrepreneurial skills.”

Though its implementation is still pending, once the Innovation Zone is in effect, it will allow marijuana entrepreneurs to conduct business openly -- and it will put Arcata’s marijuana businesses on the map as other state laws and federal legislations tilt toward the legalization of cannabis.

“We are expecting that there is going to be at least one proposition on the ballot for 2016 for legalizing recreational marijuana,” Winkler said. “Once businesses start getting established in the area and we publicize it in a positive way for how marijuana can fit within communities, then we can serve as a model.”

Oetker, the catalyst for this plan, said that the Innovation Zone is a proactive measure to keep the area economy thriving. If a legalization measure passes in 2016, Arcata will be prepared for increased production by producers. A 2011 report estimated that $415 million of Humboldt County’s $1.6 billion economy is related to marijuana. As other states move toward recreational and medical legalization, those states are also seeing marijuana startups, creating competition for the Humboldt County brand.

“I’m not a marijuana cheerleader,” Oetker told the Times-Standard. “But at the same time, my role is land use zoning and economic development. I see that we’re either on the brink of having significant issues in our community, or as a community, we could take some proactive measures to strengthen this business.”

One fear is the risk of powerful corporations entering to monopolize the industry.

“We would rather have businesses staying in Arcata, but we are also willing to share our experience to benefit other communities,” Winkler said. “One of the things that we would like to do in terms of how the marijuana industry develops is to have a lot of smaller businesses instead of one large business. It will help local employment and economic activity.”

As the city clarifies the Innovation Zone's rules and regulations, Winkler said ideas about sustainability and technology also are circulating. As an industry that is energy intensive, energy efficiency is a highly discussed issue.

Located within the city is the Schatz Energy Research Center, which is working with senior scientist Evan Mills from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory on indoor marijuana production research.

“We would like to work with other people who work in energy,” he said, “and help make the operations energy efficient by using sunlight and solar energy rather than fossil fuels.”

Although other zoning sites have not yet been defined, the zone will not be confined to a single area or landlord.

Jessica Renee Napier Contributing Writer

Jessica Renee Napier is a California-based writer who began her journalism career in public broadcasting. She teaches yoga, enjoys traveling and likes to stay up on all things tech.

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