Sonoma City Council opens door to second walk-in dispensary

After a full year of negotiating and approving a single retail cannabis dispensary for Sonoma, the city council at its Jan. 20 meeting opened the door to a second retail dispensary.

The council on Dec. 14 awarded the city’s lone conditional certificate to operate a walk-in dispensary to Sparc of Glen Ellen.

But in recent months some dissatisfaction arose among members of the council and the local cannabis community that the city’s cannabis ordinance only allows a single storefront dispensary. City Councilmember Amy Harrington, who helped shape the ordinance along with other council members, has described it as a “city-sponsored monopoly.”

“Obviously my thinking is in evolution,” said Harrington at the Jan. 20 meeting. “And I think the best thing for the consumer would be to have two dispensaries. I think that would create some amount of price competition.”

“I thought we should have two to begin with,” said Mayor Logan Harvey. “In some ways if you look at our ordinance, we have two retail dispensaries already approved here,” referring to the “delivery-only retail dispensary” allowed in the 2019 ordinance. “So we were already going to go down the path of having two dispensaries in town. This (change) is just going to allow people to walk into the building (of the second dispensary).”

Councilmember Jack Ding also supported the change, primarily for economic reasons of time and money. “We already spent a lot of time for this. We need to move forward and do something else,” he said.

He then added a philosophical perspective. “Everything has something good, and something bad. But what we can do as a city council is find the right direction, we work together, and then change it from the bad to the good. That is our job.”

Councilmember Madolyn Agrimonti, however, balked. “I was proud to move it forward when we approved the last one; but I went beyond my comfort zone,” she said of her vote to grant Sparc a conditional use certificate. She said she “cannot be part of voting yes” to approve a second dispensary.

She also questioned whether a single dispensary constituted a monopoly. “If I found this one dispensary was charging prices above the others… if it’s comparable with other businesses around the county, then I’m comfortable” with a single dispensary. “But if it becomes price-gouging, then I would approve” a second.

Van Solkov, who runs a cannabis tourism business, argued that there was a “huge” pent-up demand for cannabis tourism due to the pandemic, and said a second dispensary in Sonoma would help the city. “I don’t want to take them out of the valley to spend hundreds and hundreds of dollars in other dispensaries.”

Gil Latimer, who said he was speaking for Justice Grown applicants Ken Brown and his late wife Jewel Mathieson and “over 200 members of the Sonoma Valley Cannabis Group,” a local collective of cannabis advocates, argued that a second dispensary “was in the best interest” of medical patients, adult consumers and the city, through increased tax revenue and cannabis tourism.

“Permitting only one walk-in dispensary limits residents’ ability to take advantage of a fair, more competitive environment. Our patient community especially needs access to the widest choice of products possible to ensure they get what they need. Competition is a health part of any industry,” said Latimer. “That’s what the free market is all about, isn’t it?”

In the Nov. 3 election, Measure Y, a petition calling for a more open regulation process for dispensaries and other cannabis business, was rejected by voters, but according to resident Josette Brose-Eichar, the very fact that it was on the ballot “showed a strong desire for healthy competition.”

But David Eichar, her husband, disagreed, saying no such lesson could be learned. “You can’t take Measure Y failing as an indication of how many dispensaries residents want in the city of Sonoma.”

In her comment, Brose-Eichar also said she hoped any search for a qualified second dispensary applicant would “move much faster than the first time around,” a sentiment echoed by the council members.

“I would be open for new people to apply,” said Harrington, “but I wouldn’t want everyone to start from scratch.” She implied that reviewing the previous pool of applicants could make the process of selection shorter, and perhaps the fees that previous applicants had already paid could be applied to a new second process.

‘We already spent a lot of time on this. We need to move forward, we need to do something else.’ Jack Ding, Sonoma City Council

Agrimonti cautioned that the previous applicants were “snapshots” of the businesses at that time, and they could have changed. She argued that some review of the past applications should take place to verify they were still accurate.

In order for a second dispensary to open, the city needs to modify the Sonoma municipal code to allow it, then establish an application process to receive proposals from eligible cannabis businesses. Planning Director David Storer did not think that process would take much less time than the six-to-eight months it took last year.

But Ding reiterated that the council had better things to do than go through the whole process again. “We already spent a lot of time on this. We need to move forward, we need to do something else.”

Harvey doubled-down on that point. “One of my concerns is, in the midst of COVID recovery and vaccinations and wanting to get started on parks, one of my concerns in opening this process again and it taking a lot of time.”

In the end, there was general agreement on changing the ordinance to allow a second walk-in dispensary, and Harrington made a motion to “support a second dispensary,” which passed by a 3-1 vote, with Agrimonti against, and Councilmember Rachel Hundley absent.

Next, city staff will outline a process for identifying applicants — whether from the pre-existing pool, or taking in new applications — and determining what fees, criteria, obligations and timelines would be for the selection.

It’s the timeline, however, that remains most in doubt as the Sonoma City Council looks at their priorities for 2021.

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