A cloud of uncertainty hangs over the hundreds of Sonoma County residents who grow marijuana for a living as the county bureaucracy continues a rapid march toward regulating their well-known but largely invisible industry.
More than 200 people attended a Cannabis Community Meeting held by county officials on Oct. 6 at the Glaser Center in Santa Rosa to explain a proposed land use ordinance just six days after it was released and two months before the Board of Supervisors is scheduled to enact it.
Public workshops on the ordinance regulating medical marijuana were held around the county in July and August.
“This is not perfect by any means, but it is a first step,” Board Chairman Efren Carrillo said, noting there is a “bright future” for cannabis in the county that abuts the famed Emerald Triangle pot-growing region.
When the meeting ended, Cory Bohn, a west county marijuana farmer for 15 years, said he wasn’t sure if he would fit in under the proposed regulations that dictate where the psychoactive herb can be grown.
“Prohibition’s over but there’s still a lot of rules,” Bohn said. “I want to be compliant but I have a family of five to support.”
Bohn said he grows marijuana in a rural residential area, in a land-use zone that is likely to generate the most debate over the county’s zoning plan.
Cultivation of up to six plants for personal use is allowed across the board in the county’s 24 different land-use zones, except for medium- and high-density urban residential zones.
In the two rural residential zones, commercial cultivation is limited to the “cottage” permit type, which allows just 25 plants on parcels of at least 2 acres for outdoor gardens and a maximum of 500 square feet for indoor cultivation.
Larger permit types allow cultivation of up to 43,560 square feet of marijuana outdoors and up to 22,000 square feet indoors, and are permitted in agricultural, industrial and rural resources zones.
When Agricultural Commissioner Tony Linegar read a question submitted from the audience suggesting that some growers would be put out of business, loud applause erupted from the crowd.
“Are we supposed to stay in hiding until Phase 2?” the questioner asked, referring to the county’s planned second take on the land-use rules.
Linegar urged cannabis business people to “try to get behind” the proposed regulations and then look to the future for possible changes.
In response to a question about whether chemicals would be sprayed on marijuana crops, Linegar said there are no pesticides registered by the federal government for use on pot because it is an illegal substance. There are “food-grade materials” that are allowed by the state on marijuana, he said.
Under state regulations for the medical cannabis industry, all products will be tested for pesticide residue, which Linegar said would deter use of unauthorized pesticides.
The Sonoma County Growers Alliance, a local cannabis industry group, has estimated there are up to 10,000 pot cultivation sites in the county, according to a county staff report. About 60 percent of the sites are in the rural resources zone and 40 percent are in the two rural residential zones where only the smallest commercial grows are allowed.
County planners estimated that about 479 acres of indoor and outdoor cultivation could be allowed on 5 percent of eligible land parcels, nearly matching the estimated size of the current industry, the report said.
That leaves “plenty of room for growth,” said Jennifer Barrett, deputy director of planning in the county’s Permit and Resource Management Department.
Existing growers will not be grandfathered under the Medical Cannabis Land Use Ordinance.
“You will be required to come into compliance with our ordinance,” she said at the public meeting.
Art Deicke, a member of the alliance’s board of directors, said he appreciated the work by county staffers in drafting the proposed ordinance.
But, he said, speaking for himself and not the 200-member alliance, there are concerns the regulations may be too strict or too costly.
If that’s the case, Deicke said, “you won’t bring in the entire community.”
Planning Commission hearings on the ordinance are scheduled for Oct. 13 and 27, with another public workshop on Dec. 2. The supervisors are set to hold a hearing on Dec. 6 and adopt the ordinance Dec. 13.
You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @guykovner.