Sonoma County is considering a two-phased approach to regulate medical marijuana growing and dispensary operations in unincorporated areas. The proposed regulations were crafted by a committee comprised of Supervisors Shirlee Zane and Valerie Brown.
The Board of Supervisors Tuesday afternoon approved the two-phase approach and a resolution of intent that would amend the zoning ordinance to limit the number of permitted medical marijuana dispensaries in the unincorporated county area to nine.
There currently are five dispensaries with permits but four more have applied for permits in the unincorporated area. There also are two dispensaries in Santa Rosa, and one each in Cotati and Sebastopol.
Rohnert Park, Petaluma, Cloverdale, Windsor and Healdsburg do not allow dispensaries.
In Rohnert Park, the city's ordinance, passed in 2007, states that "the allowance of medical marijuana dispensaries negatively impacts the health, safety, and welfare of the community, due to the associated potential for increases in illegal drug activity, illegal drug sales, robbery of persons leaving dispensaries, loitering around dispensaries, falsely obtained identification cards, and other increases in criminal activity."
The city also said "the operation of medical marijuana results in increased demands for police response, thereby compromising the Department of Public Safety’s ability to respond to other calls for service." The ordinance, however, "would not impact qualified patients’ rights to cultivate and possess medical marijuana for their own use."
Countywide, in addition to capping the number of dispensaries at nine, the first phase also includes proposing enhanced criminal penalties for unauthorized marijuana growing on public lands and on private lands without the landowner's permission.
Phase one, which is to be completed within the next 120 days, also includes provisions for seeking a court order to force closure of any future unpermitted dispensaries. The proposed amendments to the zoning ordinance will be heard by the county planning commission before returning to the board of supervisors for final approval.
The regulation effort also addresses concerns about an increase of unauthorized marijuana growing operations not intended for medical marijuana patients.
There have been two marijuana-related murders in the county this month and several robberies this year at residences where marijuana was growing. Some of the growing operations are occurring on remote public land or on private lands without the owner's knowledge or consent, leading to safety problems from criminal activity, county officials said.
Lauretta Hayes told the board she lives in a rural residential area and she cannot walk her property because she has encountered an armed man with a pit bull. She said she knows of two marijuana grows and possibly three more near her home.
"Ten, 20, and 30 unidentified men are driving on our road every day to care for the crop," she said.
The unauthorized grows also cause soil erosion, fertilizer use, waste materials, and damage to native vegetation and water quality, county officials said.
Indoor marijuana grows violate building and zoning regulations, consume significant amounts of electricity, and are near schools or are in rural residential neighborhoods. The goal of the second phase, to be completed within six to eight months, is to relegate the growing of medical marijuana and finding ways the county can recover costs directly associated with the regulatory and enforcement efforts.
Regulations could include limiting the size of growing operations, including grows by collectives; setting space and electrical wattage limits on indoor grows; identifying "marijuana free" zones; monitoring crime and public nuisance statistics in the vicinity of grows and creating regulatory and enforcement fees to reimburse the county for its medical marijuana regulation programs.
It is estimated it will cost $250,000 for county staff to research, draft and develop ordinances and take any necessary legal action on the two phases of regulation. Several medical marijuana patients who spoke on the issue this afternoon said medical marijuana dispensaries must be conveniently located throughout the county because some patients are disabled or do not have transportation.
They also objected to a cap on the number of dispensaries. Supervisor Brown said county officials are aware some dispensaries provide delivery to the patients.
Supervisor Mike McGuire asked the county Permit and Resource Management Department to consider requiring dispensaries to adopt a "closed loop" system that ties a legal marijuana grow to the dispensary.
Supervisor Zane said dispensaries should publish their local, legitimate source of marijuana and agree to annual inspections by the Agricultural Commissioner's Office.
Supervisor David Rabbitt said there is often a connection between a dispensary and an illegal growing operation, and that the market for marijuana is expanding because of the dispensaries.
"It's not about medicine, it's about money and greed," Rabbitt said.
Copyright © 2011 by Bay City News, Inc. -- Republication, Rebroadcast or any other Reuse without the express written consent of Bay City News, Inc. is prohibited. Angela Hart contributed to this report.