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How big is the cannabis welcome mat in Sonoma County?

Sonoma County is putting out a welcome mat for the medical marijuana industry, but it may not be as big as the industry would like as it emerges from the legal shadows.

Under California’s new medical marijuana law, cities and counties are allowed to regulate the location of pot-growing sites and other cannabis-related businesses, which may not obtain a state license until they have secured a local land use permit.

“We’re all here this morning because we believe there’s a bright future for cannabis in our community,” county Supervisor Efren Carrillo told a crowd of about 300 cannabis industry members at the Cultivating Community conference Sept. 30 at the Hyatt Vineyard Creek in Santa Rosa.

Vendors at the Cultivating Community Conference. PD File

Vendors at the Cultivating Community Conference. PD File

The county’s first draft of its Medical Cannabis Land Use Ordinance would focus cultivation and other pot businesses into the county’s agricultural and commercial/industrial areas, Carrillo said.

But Tawnie Logan, executive director of the Sonoma County Growers Alliance, said the proposal was too narrow. Rural residential lands and the county’s Resources and Rural Development District, which covers 30 percent of the county, should be considered for cultivation, she said.

“I think it’s an appropriate place,” she said in an interview, referring to the vast RRD district that covers mostly hilly, sparsely populated parts of the county.

Carrillo said he has heard conflicting messages from rural residents: They don’t want marijuana grown near them, but there already are numerous gardens in the county’s unincorporated area.

“That is going to be one of the areas where we are challenged the most,” said Carrillo, who sits on the county’s ad hoc medical cannabis committee with Supervisor Susan Gorin.

The proposed ordinance is “a little more conservative than I would like,” Carrillo said, suggesting there should be more flexibility in land use rules for marijuana in his west county district.

If pot growers are restricted to agricultural zones, Logan said there would likely be pressure to buy up productive farmland for conversion to marijuana cultivation. Logan previously said that 70 percent of the local cannabis grows are less than 3,000 square feet, most of them located in residential zones.

Her 200-member group, about 60 percent of whom are pot growers from Sonoma, Mendocino, Napa and Marin counties, sponsored its second annual “Cultivating Community” event, nearly filling a large ballroom at the upscale hotel.

CBD founder and operator Dennis Hunter, right, with VP Nick Caston at the Cultivating Community conference. PD File

CBD founder and operator Dennis Hunter, right, with VP Nick Caston at the Cultivating Community conference. PD File

The crowd of about 300 was a bit smaller than it was a year ago but in a ritzier setting than the Sebastopol Grange, last year’s venue. Sponsors set up booths in the hotel courtyard and on a back lawn, where there also was “an outdoor 215 zone for medical patients,” organizers said, borrowing the number from Proposition 215, approved by voters in 1996, making California the first state to legalize medical marijuana.

The CBD Guild, which manufactures cannabis-infused sprays and oils, was a major sponsor of the conference, hosting a buffet lunch for the crowd. CBD’s founder, Dennis Franklin Hunter, showed video testimonials of his products’ efficacy, including one from Santa Rosa political consultant Herb Williams, who said he got relief from the pain of psoriatic arthritis without any fogging of his mind.

In an interview, Hunter said his Santa Rosa production facility, raided by authorities and shut down in June, will reopen in a week to 10 days.

Hunter, who was initially arrested and held on $5 million bail, was subsequently released without charges. He said authorities seized several hundred thousand dollars worth of inventory and equipment, which he is still trying to recover.

Asked if the raid was misguided, Hunter, a Santa Rosa resident, said that was a “tough question.”

“I don’t think they had all the information about the company, the compliances and transparency we had,” he said.

 

Supervisor Gorin, who also addressed the conference, said Sonoma County will be challenged to deal with the regulation of medical marijuana and the prospect that voters will approve recreational use of pot in November.

In Boulder, Colorado, where recreational use was legalized statewide in 2012, there are 14 dispensaries on a single street, Gorin said, suggesting that was too much.

But she hailed the advent of marijuana going mainstream in Sonoma County.

“We produce premium cannabis,” Gorin said, adding that the county also has the opportunity to develop cannabis manufacturing and research facilities.

County Agricultural Commissioner Tony Linegar warned that cannabis regulation would include strict testing for mold, mildew and other impurities. Growing a clean crop is “not going to be as easy as some people think,” he said.

State officials said that registered pot farmers also will be subject to water use regulation and the jurisdiction of the Agriculture Labor Relations Board.

Fiona Ma, a state Board of Equalization member, predicted it will be five to six years before Congress allows banks to handle marijuana money, forcing the industry to continue on a cash-only basis. But a bill signed Thursday by the governor removes a 10 percent penalty for paying state sales taxes in cash, she said, prompting applause from the audience.

The proposed cannabis land use ordinance, along with a county staff report and an environmental assessment, will be presented by county officials at a public workshop from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the Glaser Center, 547 Mendocino Ave., prior to a series of Sonoma County Planning Commission hearings starting Oct. 13.

The documents are posted online at sonomacounty.ca.gov/cannabis.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.

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