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Sonoma holding breath on cannabis

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Despite its newly-legal status in California, cannabis remains a topic that runs long on controversy. Legal to some degree in 29 states and the District of Columbia, cannabis is nonetheless illegal at the federal level, and its industry generates vast sums of cash that cannot be legally banked.

Depending on perspective, it is a mild intoxicant with real medical applications or a dangerous Schedule-1 narcotic. Its legal production and operational costs are expressly forbidden as deductions by IRS code 280e, the only commercial enterprise singled out in federal tax code this way.

To say that everyone in America has not yet made up their mind about cannabis is to state the obvious. And in the crosshairs of this indecision are entrepreneurs like Jon Early.

Early, with a head of silver hair, seems more grandfatherly than counterculture. He is both vocal and guarded about his association with cannabis. He tends toward the acerbic, and can be bluntly plainspoken.

“We are days away from legal recreational cannabis in California, and nobody has a clue what to do. It’s a cluster-crunch,” Early said, adding with a wink, “I don’t want to use naughty words.”

Early represents a cohort known as Estados Nuevos, investors who own the buildings at 865-875 W. Napa St. where, until recently, the Annex Wine Bar and Community Café were located.

Early, as project manager, is overseeing rehabilitation of the property, with ambitions to use part of it as a cannabis dispensary. The problem, of course, is the City of Sonoma’s ongoing moratorium on dispensaries, initially adopted by the City Council in 2016 and recently extended another 10 months.

Frustrated by the gridlock, Early has been outspoken – regularly attending City Council meetings to advocate the cause. “They can’t keep kickin’ the can down the road,” Early said.

Early has long been at the forefront of cannabis advocacy, forming a collective in 1996 after the passage of Proposition 215 legalized medical marijuana. That proposition allowed Californians to cultivate, sell, and use medical marijuana, and Early’s collective, “Farmacopia,” had 1,700 members in short order. He produces a glossy magazine called “Farmacann,” and is the operator of an online dispensary which delivers cannabis to clients “all over the state.” A licensed contractor whose business ground to a halt in the recession of 2008, Early’s pivot to cannabis is all-in.

“My whole focus has been the medical side of it,” Early said. “I know what this product means in people’s lives.” And well he does. Early’s wife Jackie is nearing the end of a chemotherapy regimen and uses cannabinoid CBD’s to counteract its effects.

“This is not a direction we thought we’d ever go in,” Jackie admits.

Renderings of Estados Nuevos’s plans for 865-875 W. Napa St. show the property with a stately pergola running between the two buildings from the parking lot in the rear.

“It’s a gateway property,” Early said. “But it looks like a deferred maintenance building now. It’s a run-down property and we want to upgrade it.”

In the drawings, solid walls enclose the building’s front elevations, and a harmonious palette of browns, tans and reds are displayed. “It’s a cross between Cocoa Planet and Williams-Sonoma,” Early said, comparing the design to other local businesses.

The location is ideal for a dispensary, Early says, because it threads the legal needle established by Proposition 64, which requires – among other things – that dispensaries be no closer than 600 feet to any school and no less than 100 feet from any house. Inside city limits, few properties fit those parameters.

Surprisingly, Early says he voted “no” on Proposition 64, the 2016 initiative which legalized recreational use of cannabis in California. “Prop. 64 was clearly loaded, a biased bill written to favor the billionaire who wrote it,” Early said. “I have major concerns. Nonstop, all-day-all-night concerns.”

He is not concerned, however, about how a legal medical or recreational marijuana dispensary will look in Sonoma.

“I’m a live-and-let-live kind of guy,” Early said.

He is similarly unfazed by the need for added security at a dispendary. “It’s the same as a bank, a jewelry store or a grocery store,” Early said, pointing out that all of those businesses routinely use cameras for security.

He mentioned San Francisco as an exemplar of how dispensaries can work, with 40 of them currently licensed without an appreciable uptick in crime. “We don’t disallow gas stations because they might blow,” Early said.

City officials, however, have yet to express the same enthusiasm at the prospect of an in-town dispensary. “They did absolutely nothing for a year,” Early said. “Absolutely nothing.”

Sonoma City Councilmember Rachel Hundley acknowledged that “Sonoma is moving slowly” on developing a cannabis ordinance. “But,” she adds, “no slower than most of the cities in the North Bay.

“There is consensus to allow delivery by a local cannabis business, but it is not clear whether there is a consensus for a local dispensary,” said Hundley. “As for recreational, this might be an issue Sonoma considers further down the road, but I don’t see it happening any time soon.”

Complicating matters is that the Sonoma moratorium could be a boon for cannabis entities from outside the city.

To operate legally, businesses must acquire a state license to sell cannabis. A state license cannot be secured without a local license to sell cannabis, which – in the city of Sonoma – don’t yet exist.

So on Jan. 1, state-permitted dispensaries will be allowed to apply for purchase of a Sonoma business license, cueing for the day when the council lifts the moratorium and possibly allows for cannabis deliveries from outside the city.

And so Jon Early may find himself left out in the cold. But he says he’s worn various entrepreneurial hats for 41 years, and is ready to roll with whatever comes. But that doesn’t mean he hasn’t wondered about motive.

“Am I being targeted? Am I being singled out?” Early wonders.

Gil Latimer, of the Sonoma Valley Cannabis Group, encourages the community to make its position on the issue known to the Council.

“For better or worse, the matter is now in your hands,” Latimer wrote in an email. “If you think that allowing a dispensary is the right thing to do, write them at citycouncil@sonomacity.org.”

Contact Kate at kate.williams@sonomanews.com