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Cannabis initiative finally comes to voters

The road to Measure Y

Recreational cannabis became legal in California on Jan. 1, 2016, following the passage of Proposition 64. In 2018, frustrated by what he perceived as the city’s inaction in allowing legal cannabis access in Sonoma, resident Jon Early circulated a petition that gained the necessary signatures of 10 percent of registered voters – about 700 — forcing the then-sitting City Council to, by law, either ratify the initiative, or place it on an upcoming ballot.

During discussions of commercial cannabis in 2018, the council at the time generally leaned 3-2 against allowing a dispensary inside city limits, though it agreed to allow cultivation of up to three plants in outdoor gardens.

But when Early got his petition certified, the citizens’ initiative process gave them just two legal options: vote it into the Municipal Code, or put it up for a public vote on the next general election ballot – which would have been Nov. 8 of 2018.

Instead the council authorized a 30-day, $25,000 study of the initiative, which delayed its placing on the ballot passed the deadline for 2018. So a public referendum on what became Measure Y was delayed for two years, to Nov. 3, 2020.

On Nov. 3, City of Sonoma voters will consider Measure Y, the “Personal Cannabis Cultivation Initiative.” If it passes with a simple majority, Measure Y would revise the city Municipal Code to “permit personal cannabis cultivation on all residential properties,” and also permit the “establishment and operation of cannabis businesses within the City, including commercial cultivation, manufacturing, retail, delivery, distribution, testing, and special events.”

Measure Y would supersede the city’s current cannabis-business licensing regulations which, among other things, only allows for single walk-in dispensary in the city. The process for approving the lone dispensary culminated in mid-August with the council’s preliminary selection of the Santa Rosa-based company, Sparc, as potentially the sole licensed dispensary in Sonoma.

Councilmember Amy Harrington, one of the two councilmembers on the city’s cannabis ad hoc committee, said the process was moved forward by the inevitability of Measure Y. “Part of our thinking was that we wanted to make sure a dispensary had been approved by the city, prior to the election, so voters would know that Measure Y wasn’t the only option.

“We selected someone; this is happening.”

The city gets the message

The origins of Measure Y date back to 2018, prior to the establishment of the city’s current ordinance—when the city council didn’t have the votes to support even a single walk-in dispensary. That’s when Sonoma resident and dispensary advocate Jon Early launched a successful signature drive to place a pro-cannabis initiative on the ballot. A delay by the council pushed the initiative passed the deadline for the 2018 vote and what would become known as Measure Y was approved for the 2020 ballot.

When asked by the Index-Tribune if he thinks his 2018 cannabis petition pushed the city to begin revising its cannabis policies, Jon Early answered, “100 percent—it absolutely motivated them.”

After the city delayed to the 2020 ballot a public vote on Early’s cannabis initiative, the city council — with new member Logan Harvey, who supported allowing an in-town dispensary -- established its own commercial cannabis ordinance, which allows for one walk-in dispensary in the city.

The other cannabis initiative on this year’s ballot is Measure X, which would impose a 4 percent business tax on cannabis operations. Proponents of Measure Y argue that relaxed rules on cannabis businesses could thus provide a windfall for the General Fund. That is one of Early’s arguments: “Why not consider Measure Y as a tax-paying economic engine for Sonoma, something to help balance out the job losses we are experiencing?” he asks, referring to the downturn in tourism during the coronavirus pandemic.

“That’s not how the cannabis business economy works,” said Michael Coats, who at one time worked with Early on Measure Y and was an ardent supporter. “You want to divide up the pie? It’s still a pie.” Coats, who handles some public relations for Sparc, is a cosigner on the city’s rebuttal to the arguments in favor of Measure Y, along with former winemaker Mike Benziger, who supplies bio-dynamic cannabis to Sparc.

Of his previous association with Measure Y, Coats is straightforward. “I want to point out I had four different cannabis clients at the time,” he said. As a public relations professional, he said, “I take money all the time to deliver a particular task.”

Indeed, among his current clients is Erich Pearson, CEO of Sparc.

Another Measure Y supporter is former city councilmember Ken Brown, who has been advocating for cannabis deregulation in Sonoma for 20 years. Over the past year he worked with his late wife Jewel Mathieson on a dispensary proposal for the city under the umbrella of a Chicago-based cannabis investors group known as Justice Grown. Mathieson passed away on Aug. 5, a little over a week before Justice Grown was runner up to Sparc when the city council tentatively awarded its lone storefront dispensary license.

Brown is reluctant to talk about that result, but is colorfully critical of the city council’s endorsement of only one dispensary. “What they city has done is create, and I don’t know why, a difference between cannabis and all other business. No one’s saying you can only have one tasting room, one gas station, one bank – we live in America; and as a capitalist system, competition is good,” said Brown.

A second dispensary location

During the time his petition for the initiative was circulating in 2018, Early had a well-known interest in the property at 875 W. Napa St., formerly the site of the Annex Wine Bar and Community Café. That same property was proposed in August by Justice Grown for its Sonoma dispensary, and is one of five locations in the city that would be eligible for a dispensary business if Measure Y passes, according to the city’s studies.

The road to Measure Y

Recreational cannabis became legal in California on Jan. 1, 2016, following the passage of Proposition 64. In 2018, frustrated by what he perceived as the city’s inaction in allowing legal cannabis access in Sonoma, resident Jon Early circulated a petition that gained the necessary signatures of 10 percent of registered voters – about 700 — forcing the then-sitting City Council to, by law, either ratify the initiative, or place it on an upcoming ballot.

During discussions of commercial cannabis in 2018, the council at the time generally leaned 3-2 against allowing a dispensary inside city limits, though it agreed to allow cultivation of up to three plants in outdoor gardens.

But when Early got his petition certified, the citizens’ initiative process gave them just two legal options: vote it into the Municipal Code, or put it up for a public vote on the next general election ballot – which would have been Nov. 8 of 2018.

Instead the council authorized a 30-day, $25,000 study of the initiative, which delayed its placing on the ballot passed the deadline for 2018. So a public referendum on what became Measure Y was delayed for two years, to Nov. 3, 2020.

The ballot rebuttal to the arguments in favor of Measure Y even includes the assertion that, “Measure Y was designed with the specific goal of primarily benefiting one business, the signatory,” meaning Early. But Early has told the Index-Tribune that he no longer has a vested interest with the West Napa Street property he previously managed, and has moved on to other concerns.

Dave Jefferson, the co-owner of the property who recently appeared before the city’s Design Review and Historic Preservation Commission with architectural improvements for the location, also confirmed to the Index-Tribune recently that Early “has no financial, legal, or other interest in our property on West Napa Street.”

The ballot arguments against Measure Y say it places no limits on the number of commercial cannabis businesses that may be opened in Sonoma. The statement, signed by all five council members, also says the measure would prohibit the city even from reviewing the operations of any cannabis business, “and how it would operate or fit within a neighborhood. Measure Y extensively removes all public review and input.”

“Measure Y would open the flood gates… Sonoma is not Colorado or Los Angeles, we do not need an unlimited number of cannabis dispensaries to change our community character overnight.”

Vice Mayor Rachel Hundley added another concern over the passage of Measure Y. “It appears it would supersede the city’s ordinance and process, so our plans to move forward with a storefront dispensary and conduct additional selection processes for a local delivery business, testing facility, and culinary manufacturer would be prohibited,” said Hundley.

Early’s rebuttal — co-signed by Sonoma Valley Healthcare District board member Bill Boerum, Brown and Van Solkov of Happy Traveler Tours—denies that the measure would result in unlimited cannabis businesses. “There are few locations, very few, we’re not going to have a lineup of pot shops,” Boerum told the Index-Tribune. Boerum said that his interest in cannabis is as a public health issue.

Like Early and Brown, Boerum also faults the city council of 2018 for preventing Measure Y from appearing on the ballot in that year. “To me the city really did thwart the will of the people,” he said, calling the month-long study, which delayed placing the initiative on the 2018 ballot, “a contrivance.”

Early’s ballot rebuttal concludes, “Measure Y does not put our community and future cannabis businesses at risk. It does, however, limit bureaucratic opposition and arbitrary decisions; the real reason the City wants to suppress your vote is because it infringes on their unchecked power.”

But to Coats, getting a dispensary “is finished business.”

“Mission accomplished,” said Coats. “We got a dispensary; what’s the debate?”

He said that Early’s wish to put a dispensary on West Napa Street went through a rigorous process, under the Justice Grown proposal, and the city’s approval went elsewhere.

Besides, Coats questions the need for more than one dispensary in Sonoma. “What is (the size of the city), two miles by two? Four square miles? I personally believe that one dispensary is right for the City of Sonoma.”

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