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Petaluma's cannabis policy takes shape

As communities around California prepare for recreational cannabis sales, Petaluma officials Monday began to craft a policy to regulate the burgeoning industry.

The city is forced to confront the issue after the November passage of Prop. 64, which legalized the sales and possession of recreational cannabis within certain parameters, but left some control in the hands of local jurisdictions. Under Prop. 64, the Adult Use of Marijuana Act, it is not yet possible to purchase marijuana without a doctor’s recommendation. The state is expected to issue licenses for recreational cannabis businesses as soon as Jan. 1, 2018.

“We need to look at those regulations so that we can make appropriate changes allowing for local preference in the ordinance before the retail and commercial portion of Prop. 64 goes in to effect,” City Manager John Brown said. “If we do not take the opportunity to do that, what we end up with is state regulations and not local regulations, and that’s something that we very much want to avoid.”

Attempting to strike a balance between honoring the will of local voters, who backed Prop. 64, with quelling community nuisances and maintaining public safety, the majority of the council favored allowing a few Petaluma-based cannabis delivery services. The council also supported exploring opportunities for cannabis manufacturing industries while continuing to impose stringent limits on residential cultivation to the state-mandated six plants.

Cultivation outside residential areas would not be allowed. An ordinance to solidify that is expected to come back for approval Nov. 6 in order to be in effect by the new year.

Petaluma has long tread cautiously through the nebulous waters of cannabis policy. In 2007, the city banned brick-and-mortar dispensaries, but in 2016 it reshaped its policy to allow for medical card holders to cultivate three plants and delivery from outside of the city to medical users and caregivers.

In Petaluma, 62 percent of voters supported Prop. 64, though marijuana is still illegal at the federal level. Several entrepreneurs have expressed a desire to open businesses in the city, though they have been turned away amid current restrictions, said Economic Development Manager Ingrid Alverde.

Amy Levine, a Petaluma lawyer who spoke on behalf of another resident with aspirations to manufacture and sell a cannabis-infused healing salve in the city, said she has been discouraged by a myriad of state regulations and the local ban.

“(My friend) has formed a company, gotten a business partner, made a website, talked to an accountant and wants to apply for a license when it opens in January,” she said. “The real obstacle we’ve found is finding a place to open the business.”

Following a June cannabis workshop, city staff delved into a host of issues including crime associated with cannabis, how cash flow is handled in a market that can’t legally use banks, how other cities deal with cannabis permits, public safety and health issues and federal crackdowns.

The council and public were divided at a Monday meeting where that information was presented. Mayor David Glass took a largely hard line stance against welcoming cannabis into the city amid uncertainty about how the Trump administration will deal with jurisdictions that adopt policies shirking federal law. While he asserted he has nothing against the cultivation and use of marijuana, he said the potential negative consequences are too great.

“There’s nothing that can guarantee that we’re not held personally liable if we take a vote to take an action that permits it,” he said, adding he “can’t guarantee we won’t lose everything we have as a result of that. … It’s a deal breaker for me.”

City research found no evidence that other cities have been held liable under federal law for permitting cannabis activates otherwise legal under state law. Other research at the early stage shows few links between crime and cannabis in Sonoma County, while Petaluma emergency responders and hospital personnel also expressed little concern.

City Manager Brown said staff feels that delivery services, which don’t have as much signage or advertisement and would likely be in a secure business park, pose less of a safety risk than a storefront.

About half of Sonoma County’s cities allow some form of legal cannabis sales, largely controlled by limited-term licenses and permits that must be re-approved.

Councilman Gabe Kearney said it’s “very, very unlikely” that the federal government would single out Petaluma for criminal prosecution and expressed continued support for allowing dispensaries. In its current structure, the city doesn’t issue permits, rather using exemptions to its ban so the city doesn’t technically condone marijuana use through a permitting scheme.

Kearney said allowing retail cannabis sales could funnel more tax revenue into the city’s ailing budget, though the city council could take up the issue of levying an additional tax on cannabis sales later.

Councilwoman Kathy Miller said she has struggled with odors from a nearby grow in her own neighborhood and expressed reservations about further allowing it in the city. The current ordinance for medical marijuana allows the city’s code enforcement officer to swiftly abate cannabis grows if they’re in plain sight or cause a large odor, as would the proposed ordinance.

“I still have the same issues with this that I’ve had all along, with increased crime and nuisance and quite frankly, we’re endangering pets and kids if people aren’t careful with marijuana,” she said.

Some residents, including John Richards, cautioned the city to consider the larger negative impacts of more cannabis.

“I suggest that you think about the overall health in society and what were doing,” he said. “We have enough problems in our country and the world — please think about that.”

Councilman Dave King said he’s comfortable with a limited number of delivery services and retail outlets, as long as the city maintains the ability to control permits.

“I think that a limited amount of retail within the city limits would be fine with me, and I think that quite frankly, other municipalities throughout the state and county that are doing it are managing to work through it. But on the flip side, I don’t want to be overrun with them,” he said.

While Councilman Chris Albertson described President Donald Trump as “schizophrenic,” he also expressed an openness to brick-and-mortar outlets and delivery, services as long as the products are safely tested. Councilman Mike Healy supported delivery services, with a hesitation about retail outlets. The majority of the city council was also in favor of allowing manufacturing businesses within its limits, as long as they don’t involve practices like extrication that could pose a public safety hazard.

“I just think we should we should open it up – I’m not opposed to opening it up slowly, but not so slowly that we’re at the end of the line,” Vice Mayor Teresa Barrett said.

Police Chief Ken Savano said the proposed regulations are helpful for police in their quest to keep things in line. The previous ordinance was very effective, he said.

“As the enforcement department, we appreciate the fact that the council recognized it was an effective tool and would like to expand those regulations from med marijuana to non-medical marijuana.”

(Contact Hannah Beausang at hannah.beausang@arguscourier.com.)