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Cannabis cultivation could expand in San Francisco North Bay — but not everywhere

Facing the question of whether cannabis cultivation rules should be expanded, reduced or left alone, counties and farm bureaus in the North Bay are all over the map.

Marin County, the birthplace of medicinal use marijuana in the state, plans to continue banning cultivation in its unincorporated boundaries, though continuing to allow retail delivery.

On the other end of the North Bay, Napa’s supervisors have gone back on considering allowing cultivation, while nearby Sonoma County is exploring a dramatic push to allow for more commercial growing.

After hosting a series of town halls, the county has proposed an ordinance to expand the amount of cannabis grown on a parcel to up to 10% in certain zones. Growth has been held to one acre up to this point.

The proposal was expected to head to the county’s planning commission March 18.

If the commission approves it, the process is expected to take a while. It involves a lengthy set of guidelines and a change in the General Plan — the local government’s blueprint for land use.

“We heard feedback and concern from neighborhood groups about the potential of expanded cultivation and its impact on rural neighborhood,” county Agricultural Commissioner Andrew Smith told the Business Journal on March 15. His department would oversee the cannabis operations. “Sonoma County (officials are) hearing two passionate sides of the issue. There’s a lot of long-held opposition on cannabis in general.”

Neighborhood groups are joining the Sonoma County Farm Bureau in raising sometimes opposing objections. The ag trade group takes issue with how bureaucratic the requirements are.

First, the Farm Bureau disapproves of the number of restrictions and guidelines, including “the county’s recommendation to recognize cannabis as an agriculture crop.” The group contends the federal government doesn’t do so, addressing the matter in a detailed letter to the county Planning Commission’s Permit Sonoma division.

Secondly, the Farm Bureau wants to allow property owners to combine parcels and get approval to grow on a large piece of land, rather than by 10% on each parcel. Currently, cannabis is only allowed on 10-acre plots.

Even with the cannabis issue, the farming and ranching advocacy group also continues to push its core organization values, suggesting the county toss out its lengthy list of requirements that a cultivator would need to meet in order to get a permit. Some of these guidelines deemed bureaucratic range from whether the land has cultural resources on it to the slope of the property.

“The regulation is onerous and will delay and possibly prevent cannabis cultivation,” the letter reads. Further, “no other agriculture crop is required to do” a survey of the land.

If passed by the supervisors at a later date, the rules would apply to the rural part of the county. Cannabis operations within city limits are handled by those local jurisdictions.

How we got here

Sonoma’s local government was an early adopter of cannabis, permitting medical cannabis dispensaries in 2007. Proposition 215 granted that use across the state in 1997, a few decades before voters gave the green light to adult recreational use.

In 2016, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors directed staff to bring forward a comprehensive cannabis ordinance, a proposal that resulted in an estimated 750 people attending town hall meetings in all districts and more than 1,100 people responding to a survey. Its findings showed many citizens supporting legalized commercial medical cannabis but expressed concerns about crime and other nuisances.

The county adopted a land use ordinance covering cannabis cultivation in December 2019. Last May, the agricultural commissioner’s office began drafting an update that would reflect an expansion of commercial cultivation in designated zones.

Agriculture is king in the Wine Country

Whether or not Napa County labels cannabis as an agricultural product in the land of world-renowned Cabernet Sauvignon, it would still need to satisfy the region’s thirst for grapes that make premium wine.

Planning Director David Morrison said the issue is “limited land,” and the county should not write rules allowing parcels to be taken away from wine production.

“Our agricultural land has to be protected. You can grow cannabis in other places,” Morrison said, pointing out the quality and care that go into grapes grown in the Valley don’t just happen anywhere.

“The majority of the board of supervisors is not interested in exploring (other occupiers),” he said.

This point of view is commended by the Napa County Farm Bureau, which vehemently opposes cannabis commercial cultivation in the region.

“It has zero place in the Napa Valley,” bureau CEO Ryan Klobas said.

The concern is cannabis will take away from the region’s longstanding dominance for some of the best wine in the world. It’s difficult to put a price tag on the image.

“This is work we’ve built up over time,” he said. “We’ve never taken issue with access. Cannabis delivery companies can be called from anywhere. It would be too detrimental to the Napa name. Why should we cultivate here?”

“We are completely opposed to a compromise ordinance because it doesn’t stop an initiative. The process is flawed,” he said.

Even cannabis suppliers in Napa get that argument — to a certain extent.

“I have mixed feelings. I understand the concern (about the image) but feel we also need to diversify,” said Napa resident Alicia Rose, who runs the HerbaBuena cannabis supplier but has also worked 20 years as a wine consultant.

Rose cited the majority of registered voters in the county approving recreational cannabis use (Proposition 64) in 2016 and singled out a certain age group as representing a prime market for cannabis.

“Millennials are not caring as much about your $300 bottle of cab. Cannabis makes so much sense,” she said.

Still, there are limits to the push for more cannabis representation in the Napa Valley.

“I don’t think that I would want to show up at Robert Mondavi and sell cannabis,” said Rose, who’s been awaiting permit approvals with the city of Santa Rosa to develop an 8,000-square-foot-plus cannabis wellness center.

Another world in Marin

Cities have long been the anchor for retail operations since the early days allowed for medicinal use.

Lynette Shaw, who owns the CBC Alliance in Fairfax — California’s first medicinal use dispensary — believes local governments will be wrestling with their receptiveness to cannabis operations for quite some time.

Shaw remembers the days of industry strife and civil unrest like it was yesterday. There were arrests and raids when cannabis first came on the scene.

Today, Marin County only allows for medicinal delivery under the MCDORe program, which stands for Medicinal Cannabis Delivery Only Retailer and was passed as an ordinance in 2017. Nothing new appears on the horizon for the supervisors.

The county remains relatively calm and quiet on the issue, with only four applications to start delivery operations in the review process, Senior Planner Sabrina Cardoza told the Business Journal.

“We were ground zero (for the cannabis movement). It brought terrible publicity. Sure, this is an excellent place to grow cannabis, but no one wants to go through that fight again. I don’t blame the county for not wanting to go there,” Shaw added.

California aside, the federal fight may just be starting, despite the United States entering a phase of more states legalizing cannabis. This battle may even involve the home front.

The National Cannabis Industry Association announced it opposes a report issued by the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control that recommends placing severe limitations on the amount THC allowed in regulated products. Tetrahydrocannabinol is a psychoactive compound in marijuana that is commonly used by cancer patients to relieve nausea. Some states are also considering more restrictions, despite the U.S. Congress pushing to decriminalize it.

“These misguided efforts are just the latest iteration of a long history of scare tactics used to unfairly stigmatize and criminalize products and behaviors that are far safer when regulated,” said Aaron Smith, co-founder and CEO of the trade group.

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