Infighting and allegations of influence peddling mar marijuana referendum

Inside one of the CFAM Management’s greenhouses in Nipomo.


One company’s attempt to overturn a San Luis Obispo County marijuana ordinance has raised questions about alleged backroom deals, influence peddling and attempts to mislead the public.

During a Nov. 27 SLO County Board of Supervisor’s meeting, a handful of CFAM Management Group employees voiced their opposition to a 22,000 square-foot limitation on indoor cultivation while several neighbors of grows asked the board to impose stricter limitations. The board then voted 3-2, with supervisors Adam Hill and Bruce Gibson dissenting, for an ordinance that included the 22,000 square-foot limitation.

Following the vote, CFAM consultant Sean Donahoe launched a referendum focused on undoing the county’s marijuana ordinance. If signature gathers collect 8,580 valid signatures by Dec. 29, the county could set aside the ordinance in favor of CFAM’s requests, or put the ordinance up for a vote of the public in June or November.

“We are the most qualified candidate for a license,” Donahoe said. “We are the most compliant operator in the county.”

In 2016, the county planning department approved CFAM Management for a 49,000 cannabis plant indoor grow at the former Clearwater Nursery in Nipomo. However, earlier this year, county employees inspected the site and found approximately 225,000 plants, a violation of CFAM Management’s permit.

“I don’t want to talk about issues that have been remedied,” Donahoe responded when asked about the previous violation.

SLO County’s gold/green rush

Shortly after Californians voted for the legalization of recreational marijuana, a group of high-end investors, small marijuana growers, consultants and public officials began battling for control of California’s lucrative pot market.

In 2016, SLO County Supervisor Adam Hill, and consultants Cory Black and Donahoe began courting marijuana growers with promises of success in exchange for money, multiple growers said.

Black’s political consulting firm, Public Policy Solutions, contributed significantly to Hill’s election. Meanwhile, Hill argued for marijuana regulations that favored Black’s clients. Black did not return requests for comment.

Consultant Cory Black

While Black touted his ties to San Luis Obispo County and Grover Beach officials, Donahoe claimed influence in Garden Grove, several growers said.

A little more than a year ago, Donahoe met with three men who were interested in opening a marijuana dispensary in Garden Grove. The men paid Donahoe $2,500 to secure a meeting with the mayor of Garden Grove, the three men said.

“Donahoe said he had influence with the mayor,” said James Coughlin, one of the men who paid Donahoe. “He said he could help facilitate a dispensary in Garden Grove. The meeting with the mayor never happened.”

While Donahoe admits the meeting with the mayor fell through, he said he was not peddling influence.

“I was not peddling influence, I was introducing them,” Donahoe said.

In Sept. 2016, the board of supervisors directed SLO County planning staff to construct an ordinance regulating the local marijuana industry. However, staffers repeatedly failed to follow board direction in favor of proposed regulations that appeared to support the larger growers.

At a SLO County Board of Supervisors meeting in Oct. 2017, Christopher Mathews said staff’s draft ordinance disadvantaged the smaller growers. He questioned whether staff was non-biased because a political consultant who works for Hill, Gibson, Sheriff Ian Parkinson and the planning department is also paid by several of the large marijuana businesses.

“The number one reason is the involvement of Cory Black and Public Policy Solutions in nearly every single aspect of the draft ordinance,” Mathews said. “How is someone who claims on their own website the county planning department as a client, allowed to represent clients applying for licenses under your own urgency ordinance? Why did the staff never raise the question that this is more than a conflict of interest, but rather an incubator for collusion and corruption?”

Following the Nov. 27 meeting, where the board voted to limit the size of a greenhouse grow to 22,000 square feet, Donahoe questioned why Black had failed to perform for CFAM Management, Donahoe said.

“Cory [Black] said 21 of his 22 clients are just fine,” Donahoe said. “He threatened the status of our permit.”

CFAM Management let Black go shortly after his argument with Donahoe, Donahoe said.

CFAM management’s proposed referendum

Last week, a group of people began collecting signatures for CFAM Management’s proposed referendum utilizing a number of inaccurate statements to entice voters to sign the petition. For example, a signature gather outside California Fresh Market in SLO said the county ordinance prohibited any growing of marijuana in unincorporated areas of the county.

Consultant Sean Donahoe

However, while the county ordinance limits the size and number of grows, it allows 141 growers to continue growing marijuana as long as they abide by state and county regulations. For personal use, anyone can grow up to six plants indoors.

A signature gatherer outside the Walmart in Arroyo Grande said the purpose of the petition was to allow marijuana dispensaries in Grover Beach, an area not impacted by the county ordinance.

On Tuesday night, at a meeting hosted by concerned marijuana business owners, several growers asked Donahoe what he was trying to accomplish with the referendum. The growers said Donahoe had ignored their requests for a copy of CFAM Management’s petition.

After several attendees asked Donahoe to explain what was in the petition, Donahoe said his primary goal was to get the county to write a letter protecting growers from state action during the county licensing process. Several attendees said the county had agreed to provide a letter to help growers navigate the gap period before Donahoe launched his petition.

One of the speakers then asked attendees who support the proposed referendum to raise their hands. Only two or three attendees, of about 40, raised their hands.

When asked if he planned to stop gathering signatures for the referendum, Donahoe said the decision would be up to CFAM Management.