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Sonoma cannabis vote still possible for 2020 ballot

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In Napa County, a pro-cannabis petition headed for the ballot was pulled this week by its supporters, who decided instead to work with the Napa County Board of Supervisors as they develop regulations of the cannabis industry. The parallels were not lost on those following Sonoma’s own Sonoma Cannabis Access initiative, scheduled to appear on the city’s November 2020 ballot.

Sonoma Cannabis Access, a signature-driven initiative approved for the 2020 ballot by the Sonoma City Council in 2018, permits multiple cannabis businesses in the city’s commercial zones, without a use permit or regulatory fees – unlike many of the other uses currently allowed in commercial zones, which require a use permit. Jon Early collected 800 signatures in support of a cannabis dispensary in Sonoma in 2018 because the city council at that time had refused to support any commercial cannabis businesses in the city limits.

But in the year since that initiative was approved for the ballot the makeup of the Sonoma City Council has shifted, and council members in March approved an ordinance allowing for commercial cannabis operations in the city – including one walk-in dispensary, a delivery-only dispensary, a testing lab and a manufacturing business.

In spite of the city being in the process of developing its own commercial cannabis regulations, the Sonoma Cannabis Access ballot initiative is still slated for a vote in 2020 – and if it passes would override the city’s ordinances.

At this point, however, neither the City of Sonoma nor petition sponsor Early show any sign of resolving their skirmish over how cannabis businesses can grow to maturity inside the city limits.

The fate of the cannabis ballot drive in Napa has played out differently.

On Aug. 20, Napa supervisors voted to place Measure J, the Napa County Cannabis Regulation Initiative, on the March 2020 ballot, an apparent win for Eric Sklar of the Napa Valley Cannabis Association. His group collected over 8,000 signatures in support of an initiative to allow legal cultivation on properties of 10 acres or more, and smaller grows without a permit.

But the influential Napa County Farm Bureau almost immediately announced a campaign to defeat the initiative, which many in the wine industry fear would negatively impact their grip on the county’s agricultural economy and introduce unwanted aromas in the world-famous wine-growing region.

Sklar’s change of heart on the initiative, which he withdrew on Wednesday, Aug. 28, came after the county showed a willingness to develop its own commercial cultivation ordinance. Sklar said he was swayed by the flexibility of a county-developed ordinance. “An ordinance can be evolved and changed by the Board of Supervisors at any time, whereas (voter) approved initiatives can only be changed with a ballot vote,” he wrote.

Sklar had pushed the petition because he felt Napa County was stonewalling the development of local regulations for growing cannabis, which has been legal in California for almost three years.

Similarly, Early had been lobbying the city to allow commercial cannabis since its state legalization in 2016 – presenting the commercial property he managed at 875 W. Napa St. as an ideal location.

The certification of Early’s initiative forced the hand of the city council to develop its own regulations. “When the voters want something, they’ll get what they’re entitled to get,” said Early, referring to the 800 signers of his petition to implement a broad cannabis business policy in Sonoma. The petition was certified in June, 2018, which by law required that either the city implement the petition straightaway into city code, or let the voters decide in an upcoming election.

Although the petition was presented in time for the November 2018 election, the City Council authorized a 30-day study session to evaluate it, a month’s delay that prevented the measure from appearing on the ballot. It’s a tactic that still rankles Early, who said the council “kicked the can down the road.”

In the intervening year, the council has approved its own commercial cannabis regulations for the city, limiting permits to four in a tightly-prescribed cannabis business zone. The ordinance went into effect July 30 and the council is expected to consider regulations for the application process for commercial cannabis licenses early this fall. Once that process is established, the council would then review applications for cannabis businesses – in what Sonoma Planning Director David Storer referred to as the dispensary “beauty contest.”

But the city’s still-developing process may have no bearing on whether Sonoma voters find the Sonoma Cannabis Access petition on the ballot in November, 2020, because it can only be withdrawn by its sponsor, Jon Early.

The state elections code states that “the proponent may withdraw the initiative at any time before the 88th day before the election,” as happened in Napa. Which means that Early could withdraw the Sonoma Cannabis Access initiative if he wished to – perhaps if he found the city’s new cannabis regulations process suitable, or perhaps if he were part of the new cannabis industry in Sonoma.

When asked if he would make an application under the new policy for one of the four projected business licenses, Early demurred. “At the moment I’m not planning to,” he told the Index-Tribune. “I don’t think I want to be a ‘beauty contest’ contender, I don’t like that approach.”

Other cannabis businesses doubtless have their eye on Sonoma’s new policy. “We’re definitely interested in the dispensary permit in Sonoma, I’ve been working on it almost 20 years, and of course my partner Jewel Matheson has been working on it for 10,” said John Sug of Sonoma Patient Group. He pointed out they already have a business license to do delivery in Sonoma from their current Santa Rosa dispensary location.

“I believe it’ll be a pretty fierce competition for the dispensary permit over there,” added Sugg. “There will be players coming in with more money than we have, but we have to do it the way we do it.”

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