Sonoma County supervisors extend deadline for marijuana business permits

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Sonoma County cannabis businesses have more time to seek permission to operate legally after the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday extended a critical deadline the industry sorely wanted to see pushed back.

By Oct. 31, operators must submit an initial one-page application for relief from hefty land-use fines the county has delayed enforcing in order to entice cannabis companies in the unincorporated areas to participate in the county’s fledgling regulatory system. Complete permit applications are due no later than June 1, 2018.

Previously, the county required all applications to be submitted by Aug. 31, but supervisors voted to delay the deadline after hearing numerous complaints that operators did not have enough time to fulfill the extensive requirements, including securing specialists who can conduct the necessary environmental studies.

Industry representatives called for the deadline postponement in public comments at the Aug. 22 board meeting, but supervisors were unable to take up the issue until this week. Tuesday’s vote applies retroactively from Aug. 31.

In pushing back the deadline, supervisors hope to encourage more companies to submit to the county’s new marijuana regulatory system, which is expected to deliver $3.8 million in new tax revenue. The county had accepted 115 cannabis applications, most of them from cultivators, by the Aug. 31 deadline — a far cry from the estimated 5,000 cultivators who already grow marijuana in the county.

“This will actually aid our ability to enforce by drawing a bright line between folks who are actively working toward a permit and those who are not,” said Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, in explaining her support for the deadline extension. “We all want to see more cultivators coming out of the shadows and into the light.”

While it was approved by the board unanimously, the deadline extension was met with some frustration from Supervisor David Rabbitt, who said he doubted the number of marijuana business applications would jump dramatically.

“The county really is bending over backwards for the industry,” Rabbitt said. “In my mind, this is the last extension. Deadlines are just that, and many industries have issues with consultants and subconsultants along the way … This is also the start of really no more excuses for staying in the shadows.”

Supervisor Shirlee Zane, the board chairwoman, also indicated she did not want any further delays in imposing land-use fines.

“It is time for the industry to do what they said they would do and come forward into a regulated market,” said Zane, warning the county would also pursue code enforcement against marijuana businesses operating in violation of the new regulatory framework.

Yet Omar Figueroa, a Santa Rosa cannabis attorney, cautioned supervisors against being too aggressive in its enforcement of the rules, possibly by subjecting violators to widespread criminal repercussions, which he said would be ineffective.

“The solution is to bring all these growers into compliance,” Figueroa said. “A crackdown doesn’t work. We don’t need more prohibition. What we need now is regulation.”

(This article originally appeared on September 12, 2017)