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Sonoma cannabis outlook still hazy

Amy Harrington, at right at a council meeting earlier this year, said medical marijuana helped her get through 27 days of chemotherapy. She and Mayor Hundley, left, voiced support Monday for a dispensary.

JASON WALSH,

Sonoma’s foggy foray into legalized marijuana continued this week following a City Council-led workshop to hash over the repercussions of last November’s passage of Proposition 64.

The Council met in a special open session Monday to solicit feedback from city cannabis consultants and hear public comment – a first step in revising Sonoma’s marijuana regulations as the state prepares to lift prohibitions upon the buying and selling of recreational pot in 2018.

As the city staff report on the workshop described it, “the City Council is currently gathering information to help decide which types of cannabis-related businesses, if any, should be allowed in Sonoma and, if allowed, where they would go and how they would operate.”

California voters approved legalizing medical cannabis in 1996, while last year’s passage of Prop. 64 brought recreational usage into the legal fold. However, in 2015 the City of Sonoma reaffirmed its prohibition medical marijuana dispensaries and delivery services, and then in 2016 passed moratoria restricting the indoor cultivation of non-medical marijuana, and prohibiting the outdoor cultivation of non-medical marijuana.

But now the city finds itself wading into bong waters of a deeper nature, as state legalization brings questions about retail sales, licensing, permitting, taxation, youth access and law enforcement, among others.

While the council workshop was intended as merely an information session, with no set decisions called for, City Attorney Jeff Walters recommended they “freeze the status quo in place until the council decides what it ultimately wants to do.”

Consultants from Muni Services cannabis consultants presented several questions for the Council to consider, such as: What kind of commercial cannabis businesses are wanted in the community? And what level of fees and taxes are appropriate?

According to Muni Services, a typical dispensary averages revenues of about $900,000 per square foot of retail space; cultivation and manufacturing businesses average annual revenues between $2 million and $15 million. Based on that, the Muni consultants said a local tax rate of 5 percent on cannabis sales would generate about $45,000 to $135,000 in annual revenue for the city.

Muni cannabis advisor Larry Bergkamp stressed that since banks are typically more wary of adhering to federal legal guidelines the vast majority of city cannabis revenues would come in cash.

“If you do impose commercial cannabis operations and impose taxes or fees on those the city will begin to receive large amounts of cash,” said Bergkamp. “Big pillow cases of large amounts of cash in small denominations.”

And cash transactions bring along a whole host of additional considerations, said Bergkamp – from city staff handling bills tainted with residue and odors to enlisting armored car services to transfer the funds.

Sonoma Police Chief Bret Sackett echoed those concerns, saying “cash businesses… are high risks for theft or other robberies.” Sackett said that additional challenges for law enforcement include the inability to accurately gauge cannabis intoxication levels and mitigating youth access to marijuana in the event the drug becomes even more prolific in the Valley.

Several community members added their two cents to the proceedings – the vast majority of them calling for, at the very least, an end to the city’s prohibition on medical marijuana.

Sonoma resident Cecelia Ponicsan said she’d support a dispensary operated out of Sonoma Valley Hospital, but cautioned against wine-tasting rooms being licensed to dispense.

“The very thought of wine and weed surrounding the Sonoma plaza is a terrible one,” said Ponicsan.

Richard Silver urged the Council to “approach this from a position of fact, and not fear.”

“For those of us of a certain age who want alternative medicines to Big Pharma I hope you will consider that,” said Silver. “Your parents and yourselves at one point will need it.”

Carlos Campos, of Kenwood, said that the criminalization of marijuana has been a failure.

“What is the definition of insanity?” Campos asked rhetorically. “Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. The only way we’re going to get a different result is by cracking a door open and making pathway for folks to be able to come into compliance and weed out the folks who have absolutely no desire to do that.”

Jewel Mathieson, a cofounder of theSonoma Patient Group dispensary in Santa Rosa, was passionate in wanting to “address the war on drugs as a social justice issue,” describing the past criminalization of marijuana as “draining precious resources on plant eradication.”

“I want to ask our police to focus on criminals, not gardeners; police our streets, not patients,” she said. “The war on this plant is an assault on humanity.”

Two members of parent group Sonoma RISK spoke, cautioning against the effects marijuana can have on youth. “Marijuana is a gateway drug,” said Dana Welch, who said her 55-year-old brother started smoking as a teen and is now “has no passion for life and it all started with marijuana.”

While the council members neither took a vote nor gave specific direction to staff, their observations indicated a potential split on how far a new city marijuana ordinance would go.

Councilmembers Gary Edwards and Madolyn Agrimonti were perhaps the more wary of the council – with Edwards saying he had “a lot of concern” over tasty cannabis edibles falling into the hands of kids, while Agrimonti cited pesticides among her trepidations. “I can’t believe I’m turning into an environmentalist,” she joked.

Mayor Rachel Hundley and Councilmember Amy Harrington, meanwhile, expressed a more welcoming attitude toward recreational cannabis.

Hundley said she’s “open to everything from delivery only to perhaps one day having recreation retail.”

“Prop. 64 is a sign that the world is evolving and ready to move forward with our lives and focus on other things,” said Hundley.

Harrington, herself a cancer survivor, described her own use of medical marijuana several years ago to relieve the effects of chemotherapy and described it as an “absolute essential” that patients have local access to medical cannabis.

As to recreational, Harrington, a mother of two girls on the cusp of their teen years, acknowledged the potential for pot to lead kids “off track,” but was dubious as to whether legal cannabis would lure any more youths than are currently headed in that direction.

She said she “thinks” she supports allowing a dispensary, based on the 62 percent of Sonoma voters who supported Prop. 64.

“If we continue the moratorium for a prolonged period of time we are essentially thwarting what the voters told us they wanted,” said Harrington – “which is they want marijuana to be legal.”

According to city staff, the update to the marijuana ordinance will return to the Council in about 45 days for guidance on major questions and formal direction.

Email Jason at jason.walsh@sonomanews.com.