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Medical marijuana dispensaries in Sonoma County should be limited to nine in unincorporated areas, according to county planning commissioners, who see the limit as a first step to regulating a burgeoning pot industry.

The Planning Commission on Thursday recommended 4-1 to the Board of Supervisors that a cap be put on the number of dispensaries, even though commissioners acknowledged it may not prevent an undue concentration of the outlets in some neighborhoods.

"If you have one on every corner, there will be an outcry," Commissioner Don Bennett said in voting to limit the number of outlets to nine.

He said it will also help avoid a backlash against the medical marijuana industry.

"I think there's absolutely a compelling need for medical marijuana," he said, citing the numerous advocates who have contacted him.

But commissioners also agreed they want to revisit a number of regulations on medical marijuana, including security issues for the shops and ways to avoid a lopsided number in places such as south of Santa Rosa's city limits.

They also intend to scrutinize cultivation guidelines, since supervisors have signaled they want tighter regulations of medical pot gardens.

There currently are six permitted dispensaries in the unincorporated area of Sonoma County and another three pending applications.

That would take up all nine slots, if supervisors agree with the recommendation.

In addition there are four dispensary locations within city limits: two in Santa Rosa, one in Cotati and one in Sebastopol. Those cities also have caps that prohibit additional shops.

The remaining six cities in the county ban dispensaries.

Over the course of two hours Thursday, commissioners heard a variety of views, from parents who said the dispensaries send the wrong message to children, to patients who said there should be no limits on the number allowed because it makes it harder to obtain marijuana.

The county public health department urged a limit, saying proliferation of the outlets leads to increased use by both minors and adults -- similar to alcohol and tobacco.

In effect, public health officials said it makes it appear more mainstream and less threatening.

"Greater accessibility results in greater access by our children," said Kevin McConnell, an attorney and father active in drug- and alcohol-prevention programs.

He said he had no objection to responsible adults who legitimately use medical marijuana. But he objected to the proliferation of dispensaries because of the head shops, smoke shops and hydroponic stores that follow.

Chet Jenkins, a patients' activist, said restricting the dispensaries makes patients have to drive farther or take the bus.

With the dispensaries, he said, "there is less black market and border crossing and more safe access points."

"Sonoma County does not have a proliferation of dispensaries," said Randy Dale, adding that it can be hard to find a willing landlord and the right zoning to open one up. By comparison, he said San Jose has 140 dispensaries and Sacramento has 39.

Sara Schrader, a medical cannabis advocate, said patients in some parts of the county, such as Cloverdale and Sonoma, have to travel 30 miles to a dispensary. She advocated one option that would not restrict the number of smaller dispensaries serving 20 or fewer patients per day.

Exact data on the number of medical marijuana patients is elusive.

In Sonoma County it's been estimated at 2 to 3 percent of the population, according to attendees at a recent stakeholder meeting, which equates to 9,700 to 14,500 people.

Each current permitted dispensary in the county and cities serves between 300 and 1,500 patients.

"Based on these figures, it appears that sufficient number of permitted dispensaries will exist to serve the estimated number of patients," county planner Amy Wingfield Lyle said.

But some medical marijuana advocates said the number of patients is probably higher.

"We think 2 to 3 percent is very low," said Kumari Sivadas of the Sonoma County Alliance for Medical Marijuana. She suggested it is probably closer to 5 percent.

County officials also estimate there are 20 to 30 delivery operations in Sonoma County -- all unregulated -- that bring the marijuana to patients' homes.

Commissioner Jason Liles said based on the variety of opinions aired, there was little consensus and there still remains a conflict between state law that allows medical marijuana and federal law that prohibits it.

He reluctantly agreed to support the cap, saying he supports taxing marijuana as much as possible.

"Hopefully in 10 years, we will look back on this and laugh," he said noting that even dispensary operators disagreed on whether a limit is appropriate.

Chairman Tom Lynch, the only one to vote against the nine dispensary limit, favored allowing more small shops.

"Ultimately, the solution is to legalize it, or semi-legalize it, where you control it with pharmacies," he said.

You can reach Staff Writer

Clark Mason at 521-5214

or clark.mason@pressdemocrat.


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