July 25, 2017
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Sonoma County starts accepting medical marijuana business and outdoor medical cultivation permits

By: Katherine Minkiewicz
July 7, 2017

This week Sonoma County is starting to accept medical marijuana business and outdoor cultivation zoning permit applications for unincorporated areas of Sonoma County, where individual cities will continue to make their own decisions on marijuana business regulations, according to a County of Sonoma press release.

The outdoor medical business cultivation permit applications will allow for operation for medical purposes only for one year, as well as cultivating zoning areas of up to 10,000 square feet with a limit of 25 plants in “Diverse Agricultural” and “Land Extensive Agricultural” use, according to the same press release.

According to Tim Ricard, Sonoma County Business Retention and Expansion Program Manager, the culminating decision took over a year to come to pass and involved a lengthy process with the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors.

“It started with the board of supervisors and once the state laws came out regulating the industry, kind of transitioning it to a commercial business where it can add value to our local economy, that process started a year ago. There was an ad hoc, which comprises of two members of the board of supervisors and a lot of citizen input,” Ricard said. “The ordinance then went to the planning commission and was adopted by the board of supervisors on December 20, 2016 and since that time, we’ve been preparing to implement the ordinance.”

The permits being issued will cover a wide variety of different cultivation and business efforts, where individuals wishing to start a business or manufacture will go through the Permit Center and those wishing to cultivate for health use to be sent to a medical dispensary, will go to the Department of Agriculture/Weights & Measures for a zoning permit instead, according to Ricard.

  Ricard pointed out these permits aren’t for any “adult use businesses” and that the county is not allowing for that at this time and permits will be for medical use dispensary manufacturers only. 

“We’ll be issuing a wide variety of permits, everything from a small cottage grower… to outdoor commercial grows or manufacturers. Weights and measures will be able to issue permits as soon as a month, whereas some permits won’t be issued for up to a year,” Ricard said.

Prior to the state passing the cannabis business ordinance, medical dispensaries were not “for profit” and they had no regulatory structure, Ricard said.

“The state changed that and allowed cultivators, manufacturers and all those businesses that bring the products to the dispensaries to sell to medical patients to become ‘for profit’ entities and get land use permits” Ricard explained. 

Taxes will also be part of the new regulatory structure for this industry, with the “Cannabis Business Tax Ordinance, according to Sonoma County Board of Supervisors Chairwoman, Shirlee Zane.

“It’s been an ongoing process and we set the guidelines of the ordinance last December. We felt that we need to get people in the industry out of the shadows and get complying regulations. And to permit a business we need taxes and taxpayers... so we can make it a legitimate industry,” Zane said.

However, some Sonoma County cities will not be participating in the allowance of permits, as it is up to the discretion of each city to create their own regulations when it comes to cannabis.

The City of Rohnert Park has a far stricter stance on cannabis and in February of 2016, RP City Council banned all commercial medical marijuana businesses and activities, including “cultivation, processing, deliveries, and dispensaries,” according to the website.

RP Mayor Jake Mackenzie said the city council is considering it and later this summer may implement a cannabis regulatory task force.

“We as a council are considering it later and may establish a task force on regulations for cannabis operations but we are not an active player,” Mackenzie said.

However, the City of Cotati is more involved and has already had a medical dispensary for around five years, according to Mayor Susan Harvey.

Regarding the start of business permits throughout the county, Harvey said the city has had two public input meetings, a panel discussion and an open house to answer any questions the public may have.

“We had a business owner, someone in the cannabis industry and the chief of police and they all gave their perspective and the staff is now working on an ordinance for us. I think reality is, the initiative passed and like all of us, we are trying to fill in the details. So, we are trying to balance the needs of the citizens and those of the businesses,” Harvey said.

The main goal for the county’s permitting of cannabis is to help the industry grow, where there are an already approximate 7,000 cultivators in the area, according to the press release.

“The county’s goals in permitting cannabis are to preserve our environmental resources, protect the health and safety of our communities and ensure the industry contributes positively to the economic vitality of our county,” Zane said in the press release.

Later in a phone interview, Zane said that her and people within the business are excited for the future of the industry under the new permits and regulations.

“It’s exciting that we’re all legitimizing an industry that can be good for the quality of life,” Zane said.