Sonoma City Council moves on pot dispensaries

A trio of Sonoma City Council members on Wednesday expressed interest in allowing up to two adult-use cannabis dispensaries in the city – as the council voted 4-1 at its Feb. 20 meeting to hire a consulting firm to map out a path toward legal pot sales in Sonoma.

Under the city’s current ordinance, the only commercial cannabis activity allowed is medicinal deliveries from outside the city limits.

The council’s newfound openness to commercial cannabis comes less than a year after the council in May of 2018 approved an ordinance banning dispensaries in the city.

But the election in November of Councilmember Logan Harvey has created a three-member pro-cannabis majority on the council, which appears intent on revising the city’s pot ordinance to allow for dispensaries, adult-use deliveries and possibly testing and manufacturing of marijuana products.

“I’m so grateful we’re moving forward,” said Sonoma resident Jewel Mathieson, a longtime cannabis advocate who operates the Sonoma Patient Group dispensary in Santa Rosa. “I want to applaud you for your courage and your vision,” she said to the council.

Council gadfly Fred Allebach summed up the general mood of the room:

“As somebody who grew up in the early ‘70s, to listen to all this official talk about pot is somewhat ludicrous and entertaining – a theater of the absurd,” said Allebach. “To have it be going this way is pretty interesting.”

Mayor Amy Harrington has named revising the city’s cannabis regulations as one of her primary goals of the year; Councilmember Rachel Hundley has also previously expressed interest in allowing for a dispensary to operate in the city.

Harrington echoed several public commenters at the meeting by saying, “It is a little bit surreal that we’re here.”

Harrington also noted that many of the negative communications she’s had with community members opposed to dispensaries stemmed from residents with family members struggling with substance abuse issues.

“People have had children and loved ones with drug problems and those problems have been devastating for those families and marijuana has often been part of that,” acknowledged Harrington. “It makes sense to me that this makes them feel alarmed.”

Hundley said she wanted to recognize the “many benefits this product has” for so many people, especially the growing senior market. She predicted it would be legal at the federal level within five years. Hundley also said she also liked the idea of Sonoma having a local cannabis identity, possibly via manufacturing. “Sonoma, being a cottage food kind of city, it seems like it would not be unreasonable that we could have our own homegrown cannabis gourmet food provider here.”

Councilmember David Cook, who has consistently voted against allowing a storefront dispensary in town, remained opposed to the idea. “Traffic that we have in Sonoma is horrific,” said Cook. “In our downtown infrastructure, it’s just not going to work.” Cook said dispensaries should be in the unincorporated areas of the county. He urged pro-cannabis residents to contact 1st District Supervisor Susan Gorin and the County of Sonoma to lobby for dispensaries outside the city limits.

Joining Cook in opposition to commercial cannabis operations, Councilmember Madolyn Agrimonti noted a “minority of residents that are against this – despite the scientific survey the Index-Tribune did,” referring to a 2018 Sonoma Index-Tribune readers poll in which 56 percent of respondents were open to an in-town dispensary.

Still, she said she recognizes that “there are benefits” to medical and recreational marijuana use. She said things have changed since her youthful days circa the Summer of Love.

“I grew up in San Francisco in the ‘60s with all the cool bands and you would go to parties and pills – whatever you wanted, acid – was all there,” detailed Agrimonti. “And you would just walk in the room and say, ‘Oh cool!”

Despite her reservations, Agrimonti said “I don’t think that’s where we’re heading. I’m glad that we’re getting to this point.”

Though Agrimonti echoed Cook’s opposition to any commercial cannabis activity that isn’t allowed under the current ordinance, she joined her three other colleagues in voting to hire cannabis-consulting firm HdL Companies, for a fee of $29,200, to work with the city in drafting an ordinance to allow commercial cannabis activities in the city.

According to city staff’s timeline, an ordinance could be prepared later in the spring, with the possible selection of dispensary operators to take place between July and October.

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