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Sonoma Valley grows its own

'From seed to sale, for the first time in our state's history,' boasted State Sen. Mike McGuire recently, 'medical marijuana will now be regulated across the state of California.'

The first-term state legislator was bragging about new comprehensive medical marijuana legislation, a package of three bills signed by Gov. Jerry Brown last month known as the Medical Marijuana Regulation and Safety Act. It's no accident that McGuire co-wrote the bill: he represents the North Coast of California – including the Sonoma Valley – where the majority of marijuana is grown in the United States.

How this suite of bills – SB643, AB266 and AB243 – will affect marijuana growers, patients, and law enforcement is a question that is being actively debated among all affected parties. When it goes into effect in just a few weeks – on Jan. 1, 2016 – that debate will only intensify.

'We're still digesting all of the new legislative changes,' said Lt. Bret Sackett, Sonoma's Police Chief. 'It's still to be determined how that's going to roll out. Until then, we're focused on keeping the status quo until the county counsel tells the Sheriff to change their policy.'

The bill establishes a Bureau of Medical Marijuana Regulation under the Department of Consumer Affairs; licenses will be issued for various levels of cultivation, manufacturing, testing, dispensing, distribution and transportation. All products will be tracked, the rules for cultivation and distribution standardized, and environmental impacts will be controlled. The resulting taxation can provide money for local law enforcement activities and environmental cleanup, among other structural regulations.

The picture of compliance with current marijuana regulations – California was the first state to legalize medical marijuana, in 1996 – is a complicated one, according not only to law enforcement but dispensary operators, cultivators and even patients.

Medical use is now legal in almost half of U.S. states, and recreational use in several – including Oregon, Colorado, Washington and Alaska, along with the District of Columbia.

Meanwhile, Mexico's Supreme Court just last week ruled that the prohibition of the consumption and cultivation of marijuana for personal use is unconstitutional – saying it 'violates the human right to the free development of one's personality.'

Mexico's bold decision was foretold just days earlier by Sonoma resident Jorge Cervantes, who has been involved in cannabis cultivation and regulation for over three decades. Cervantes has written a number of books and articles on cannabis, the latest being 'The Cannabis Encyclopedia,' a hefty tome of almost 600 full-color pages filled with images, charts, diagrams, step-by-step instructions that is, well, encyclopedic.

'It's happening pretty much at light speed,' Cervantes said of legalization, during an interview earlier this month. 'In Mexico, it could be legalized this week.'

His prescience may have been based on some inside dope, so to speak: the book's foreword was written by Vincente Fox Quesada, Mexico's former president.

Here in the Sonoma Valley, cannabis consumption and cultivation are largely discreet. But it's here, make no mistake. Rumors abound of cannabis growing happily amidst the grapevines of tolerant winemakers; of commercial operations in warehouses; of expansive greenhouses under the canopy of Mayacamas forests.

According to Dave McCullick of the Sonoma Patient Group in Santa Rosa, Sonoma Valley is a significant supplier of medical marijuana. 'There's a lot of cannabis money running through the Valley,' he said. 'This is a big part of the economy of the Valley, this is a big part of Sonoma County, this is a big part of California, especially Northern California.'

The Sonoma Patient Group, like other dispensaries, is technically a collective: members first get a medical marijuana recommendation from a doctor, then 'join' the collective by showing the recommendation and an ID. They can then purchase their cannabis as medicine in a number of forms: from tight and odoriferous buds to honey to cakes and cookies to creams and sprays to pre-rolled joints.

'Currently all our products, generally speaking, are from patients,' said McCullick. Ever since the California medical marijuana law passed in 1996, patients are allowed to grow cannabis. 'If one of the patients in the collective has excess cannabis, they can bring it to the dispensary and be reimbursed for it,' said McCullick.

John Sugg, a co-owner of the Sonoma Patient Group along with McCullick and Jewel Mathieson of Sonoma, estimates that dispensaries in the county sell $20 million worth of product every year; their dispensary alone takes in $1.5 million, third largest in the county. Larger dispensaries include Organicann and Peace in Medicine, both also in Santa Rosa.

'As big as wine is in this state, it's nothing compared to cannabis,' Cervantes said. Barring opening the books of every collective, patient cooperative, and underground farmer in the state, that's a hard figure to verify. According to a study last year, the combined economic impact of the wine business on the 2012 Sonoma County economy was $13.4 billion. That's a lot of wine; and it would take a lot of weed to come close.

'As soon as the law changes,' Cervantes pointed out, 'everything will change.' He suggested that the income to be made from legalized marijuana could well mean it's more profitable to grow cannabis than wine grapes on any given acre.

'Think about the tax money,' he added. 'Paying taxes gives you legitimacy.'

Mathieson is quick to agree. She was a highly vocal proponent of an effort six years ago to establish a dispensary inside the City of Sonoma. 'If they were smart, they'd put it in the city limits and take the revenue.'

'And let the jobs be created,' added McCullick.

'Since medical marijuana dispensaries have never been added to the Development Code as a defined use, they are not allowed,' said Sonoma Planning Director David Goodison. When the city debated adapting its own rules for cultivation and sale in 2009, city staff produced an extensive 150-page study of the issue, coming up with a set of regulations that would allow a dispensary inside the city.

Despite lively public comment and council comment, the proposal at a May 2009 meeting failed to come to a vote. Then-mayor Ken Brown had to recuse himself at the city attorney's recommendation (his wife is Jewel Mathieson). It soon became clear that a tie would result, as councilmembers August Sebastiani and Joanne Sanders appeared opposed to an in-city dispensary, while Laurie Gallian and Steve Barbose seemed in favor it. The proposal was dropped and has yet to resurface.

There are at present no dispensaries in the Sonoma Valley. Accordingly, most Valley patients get their cannabis from delivery networks, a risky business in a region that McCullick, and others, have described as 'a hostile environment.'

'The only problem is the police chief over there,' McCullick said referring to Sackett. 'He's a really nice guy and a good cop but he has a hard time catching up to the new ways of doing things … He's just anti-cannabis all the way around.'

Chief Sackett describes his policy as 'fairly liberal,' in keeping with the county-wide regulations pertaining to the cultivation and possession of cannabis. 'Periodically we stop people with marijuana,' said Sackett. 'And sometimes we suspect it's not being used in strict conformance of the law.'

He added, 'The complication is that abuse of the system and legitimate use of the system often look very similar.'

'In the city of Sonoma, we actually have very little problem in terms of cultivation,' said Sackett. 'We have couple isolated cases here and there but it doesn't seem to be that prevalent.'

Outside city limits, it's a different story. 'In the Valley, we frequently get complaints about large scale outdoor marijuana grows, or even large-scale indoor marijuana grows,' he said. He said complaints are received about pungent aroma, trespassing, increased traffic, even complaints about people tapping into utilities to power grow-sites. 'That's how we normally get involved,' said the police chief. 'We're not driving around with our head out the window smelling the air.'

Sackett's response to citizen complaints, and his department's enforcement, is tightly tied to what Cervantes, McCullick and even the casual user recognizes as well. 'The biggest issue is, it's illegal under federal law,' Sackett points out.

Despite state 'legalization' initiatives and county regulations, cannabis is listed as a federal Schedule 1 drug, along with heroin, LSD, peyote and other psychedelics – highly addictive and without medical value.

Research, though slender, seems solid that cannabis can help ease pain, nausea, and loss of appetite in people who have cancer and HIV; relieve neuropathy and misfiring nerves in epilepsy, Parkinson's disease and multiple sclerosis; and a number of other more intangible benefits as well.

Whether or not you think marijuana is a dangerous drug or 'medicine' – the increasingly popular nickname for pot, weed, grass, ganja etc. – probably depends on social as much as scientific context. Marijuana can almost certainly change your mood, making you feel happy, relaxed, sleepy, or anxious.

On the down side, it can also disrupt short-term memory and decision-making ability. And many are leery of its use by teens and even young adults, on the theory that the brain is still developing until about the age of 25.

A national movement toward rescheduling cannabis seems to be growing; presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders recently introduced a bill in the U.S. Senate to delist marijuana from the DEA's 'most dangerous drugs' list.

Several state groups are jockeying for position in a presumed ballot initiative for November 2016, for California to join Oregon, Colorado and other jurisdictions to legalize recreational use.

When, and if that happens, Sonoma Valley may find itself well positioned to take a leading role in a new economy.

Email christian.kallen@sonomanews.com.

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