Sonoma County officials are set to take another step today toward limiting the number of medical marijuana dispensaries permitted to operate in the unincorporated area.
The Planning Commission will consider a limit of nine shops — equal to the six suppliers operating under existing county rules, plus three other suppliers with pending permit applications.
A more restrictive proposal discussed last year by the Board of Supervisors drew fire from medical pot suppliers and patient advocates. The board sent it back to the planning staff for further study, and today's hearing on the latest recommendation is expected to feature another packed house.
Three other options would limit dispensaries by supervisorial district, size or by board discretion.
A majority of supervisors and other county leaders are attempting to overhaul a 2006 medical marijuana ordinance they now see as unable to govern the burgeoning North Coast marijuana trade.
They argue that the business, legal or not, is a chief cause of violent and petty crime, environmental pollution and other problems.
"Where I start is I don't like any of this," said Supervisor Valerie Brown. She and Supervisor Shirlee Zane last year proposed a lower limit of seven dispensaries, plus tighter regulation of medical pot gardens.
Suppliers and patients argued the dispensary limits were unwarranted. They argued that the cap of seven was arbitrary, without any supporting data on population size or patient demand, and that it unfairly targeted a legal activity in California.
Since then, they have pointed to county data showing crime does not appear to be an issue with permitted dispensaries.
"They don't put a cap on liquor stores or pharmacies in this county," said Mary Pat Jacobs, spokeswoman for the advocacy group Sonoma Alliance for Medical Marijuana.
Jacobs said the group's stance has not changed with the new proposed cap of nine shops.
Amy Wingfield Lyle, the county planner overseeing the proposal, said dispensary caps are the norm for local governments that permit the shops through land-use rules.
The three Sonoma County cities that allow dispensaries — Santa Rosa has two and Cotati and Sebastopol each have one — all have caps that prohibit additional shops.
Industry representatives and patient advocates expressed some support for a cap at a recent county meeting, provided it was based on patient population data, Wingfield Lyle said.
That data, however, has been hard to come by. Information provided to the county by medical marijuana stakeholders suggested that 2 to 3 percent of the population uses medicinal pot, equating to a Sonoma County patient base of 9,700 to 14,500 people, she said.
The currently permitted dispensaries each serve an average of 1,000 patients, Wingfield Lyle said. So county planners concluded that 13 shops countywide — including four in the cities and nine in the county area — would suffice to serve the local population.
"That's about the only numbers we have to go on," she said.
Supervisor Efren Carrillo questioned the validity of that data and any cap it might support.
He said limits should be achieved through tighter land use regulation and the law of supply and demand.
"When you're throwing up arbitrary numbers without substantive data it falls short of good public policy," Carrillo said.
At least one other supplier said he'd be making the same argument before planning commissioners today.