Sonoma to get rolling on cannabis

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For the past six months, nearly every Sonoma City Council meeting has begun in much the same way. After the call-to-order, the Pledge of Allegiance and the approval of the agenda comes the call for public comment – with longtime Sonoma resident Ken Brown almost invariably the first to speak.

“I implore you to place on your agenda a discussion of a medical cannabis dispensary for the City of Sonoma,” he has said, one way or another. His efforts have finally paid off, with the news this week that the process for the city to revise the Development Code on the issue of cannabis will begin with a special session of the City Council on Monday, Sept. 11.

Though Brown’s interest is specifically a dispensary, Sonoma Planning Director David Goodison said the discussion that will begin this month needs to be more wide-ranging.

“With the passage of Proposition 64, there’s a variety of different activities associated with cannabis that are possible that weren’t before,” he said, referring to the November 2016 state vote that legalized cannabis for recreational use. “Now communities have to decide where they want to go. So this isn’t just about dispensaries, although that’s one of the items up for discussion.”

Goodison outlined the process by which Sonoma needs to address and update its cannabis policies. “We’re going to be providing council with a lot of background information on this subject; we suspect it’s going to be a somewhat open-ended discussion,” he said.

The Sept. 11 meeting will likely be followed by a more formal City Council agenda item to receive a staff report outlining specific directions the City could take in revising the Development Code, and for the Council to make its recommendations for a draft ordinance. That would then be reviewed by the Planning Commission before returning to the City Council for specific action – it’s a multi-step process that could well last into early next year.

“Depending on what the council wants to do, it could be even more complicated,” cautioned City Manager Cathy Capriola, noting issues of taxation, selection of businesses to operate in the cannabis space – both medical and recreational – and cultivation, among others.

But for Brown, and others, the primary concern has long been access for legitimate medical marijuana patients.

“Our ultimate goal is to provide a medical cannabis dispensary for those who need it,” said Brown, himself a former member of the City Council. “There are a lot of patients in Sonoma, a few of them are quite sick and just can’t drive to Santa Rosa, or Cotati or Sebastopol, or wherever. I live in the city, I know that they could use the money, it seems logical to me that they’d want it to happen here.”

The money he’s referring to is any fees or percentages the city would stand to gain from a sanctioned dispensary in city limits. To put that into context, consider this: the Sonoma County Cannabis Program projects revenue of $3.94 million to county coffers from fees and taxes for fiscal year 2017-18. The City of Sonoma is sequestered from that revenue until it comes up with its own means of levying fees and taxes within its jurisdiction.

Brown’s interest in cannabis stems in part from his wife Jewel Mathieson’s connection to the Sonoma Patient Group, a legal dispensary in Santa Rosa. In fact, that turned out to be a crucial association in 2009, when Brown – as a sitting council member – recused himself from the decision about whether Sonoma should allow dispensaries.

“I was given advice by the city attorney to abstain (based on his wife’s dispensary business),” said Brown. “But that was an erroneous judgment. We weren’t voting on who’s going to get the dispensary, and there was no need for me to abstain.”

The final vote was 2-2, which meant the long-standing ban on marijuana dispensaries stayed. “I slept at the radio station for a month,” Brown likes to say, only half in jest, referring to his wife’s displeasure with his recusal and the measure’s resulting failure. (Brown is a contributor to KSVY radio in Sonoma.)

In the intervening years, Sonoma has continued to hold a rather conservative policy regarding cannabis, even while other jurisdictions in the county and state have moved on. In late 2015, the Council unanimously approved a resolution re-asserting the city’s existing prohibition on marijuana, a move taken in the wake of the state’s Medical Marijuana and Safety Act, passed the previous September (introduced by area’s state Sen. Mike McGuire). Though that bill loosened state regulations on cannabis cultivation, it allowed for local jurisdictions including cities and counties to impose their own tighter controls.

Last November, the Council voted 4-1 to approve a pair of 45-day moratoriums on the indoor and outdoor cultivation of marijuana within the city limits. At the time, City Attorney Jeff Walter urged approval in order to give the council adequate time to draft its own regulations on marijuana cultivation.

“I have no hope that anything would be resolved in 45 days,” said current Mayor Rachel Hundley at the time. And time has proven her right: That 45-day moratorium period has long since passed, and the City has yet to draft its own regulations.

But that process finally begins its long course toward regulation this month with the Sept. 11 study session.

Outside city limits, efforts to open a dispensary in Sonoma Valley have long gone nowhere – although in 2010, an unpermitted dispensary opened for a short time on Sonoma Highway, not far from Flowerly Elementary. It was shut down as soon as the Sheriff’s Office found out about it.

Mathieson makes it clear that, despite her role as co-founder of the Sonoma Patient Group – which began operation in 2008 and is the county’s oldest legal dispensary – she doesn’t feel ownership of a local permit.

“As an activist, I’m interested in safe access for patients. I don’t need to own the one that happens here,” Mathieson said.

But where such a dispensary might be located could prove even more problematical. State regulations prohibit a cannabis dispensary within 600 feet of a public school; in a city of only slightly more than 2 square miles, finding that sweet spot can be difficult.

One such location that has been rumored is the site of the Annex Wine Bar, recently closed for renovation. However Jon Early, the new manager of the Annex and Community Café property on West Napa Street, which has recently come under new ownership, is quick to clarify: “We think that a restaurant will be really important for that location, as an anchor for the property.”

Early did not rule out, however, utilizing another of the same property’s commercial spaces off the busy highway as a dispensary, if everything falls into place.

Early has long had his own interest in medical cannabis, and has posted an online petition in support for a dispensary in the City of Sonoma. “I really do think it’s important to get the ball rolling with the city,” he said.

That ball begins rolling Sept. 11, with a special session of the Sonoma City Council, to be held at the Community Meeting Room, 177 First St. W., starting at 6 p.m.

(This article originally appeared on August 31, 2017)