Medical marijuana users in Sonoma County will gain new legal protections for possessing and growing pot under a compromise approved Tuesday by county supervisors.
"It reflects Sonoma County's continued support for compassionate use," said west county Supervisor Mike Reilly, who said the Sheriff's Department, the District Attorney's office and local law enforcement had a hand in harmonizing new guidelines for medical pot use.
Medical pot use in Sonoma County has been in disarray for several years as local practices conflicted with state laws and federal court rulings. An earlier county plan, crafted 10 years ago under Proposition 215, fell apart when users began getting arrested for possession and cultivation limits allowed by state and local laws but prohibited by harsher federal statutes.
The supervisors' resolution, which takes effect Nov. 1, allows medicinal pot users to possess three pounds and cultivate more plants for personal use - 30 in a 100-square-foot garden - than is permitted under a state law. That law allows individual counties to enact their own laws that exceed state regulations limiting possession to eight ounces and cultivation to 18 plants.
Similar resolutions - all more lenient than state restrictions - have been enacted in Mendocino, Humboldt, Santa Cruz and San Francisco counties.
Several activists with the Sonoma Alliance for Medical Marijuana said they support the new guidelines, although they had hoped the limits would be higher. Under the old county policy, users were allowed to grow 99 plants.
The alliance estimates there are about 3,000 medical marijuana users in Sonoma County.
"The question is, what is a reasonable amount that a patient can use, and what is a reasonable amount that a patient can grow," said alliance spokeswoman Mary Pat Jacobs. "This is a good average."
Reilly said county law enforcement officials, who had operated under the 99-plant limit for about five years, considered it too high.
The new guidelines do not contain special provisions for people who grow medicinal marijuana on communal gardens, which several medical pot activists told supervisors would create a hardship for patients who can't grow it themselves.
Also, it does not address medical marijuana dispensaries, another contentious issue between activists and neighbors of pot clubs. Reilly said supervisors will tackle the issue of pot club operations in the next few weeks.
Implementation of new medicinal pot use guidelines also allows the Public Health Department to begin distributing state medical marijuana cards to qualifying residents, which officials hope to get started in mid-October. With a recommendation from a physician, patients can obtain a special permit that is honored by local law enforcement.
The new county policy does not resolve the conflict between federal and California laws.
"As long as we have discrepancy between federal and state, we can not assure anyone that they will be safe from prosecution," Reilly said.