Healdsburg City Council members Monday opted to form a task force to study the controversial question of medical marijuana cultivation, including whether the fragrant plants should be allowed outdoors, or confined inside.

In an attempt to balance the need of medical marijuana patients versus the periodic complaints over the skunk-like aroma the plants can produce — as well as the potential for attracting crime and violence — the council agreed to study the issue further.

"I have friends who use medical marijuana for different ailments. I know they need it," said Mayor Susan Jones. "I would feel better knowing we spent time talking to users and supporters and knowing they had input into the process."

"We need to hear from our community," said Councilman Gary Plass in agreeing to establish a committee to look at cultivation guidelines. The seven-member group, composed of two council members, two planning commissioners and three community members would likely come back with recommendations in the fall.

In response to ongoing complaints from residents about marijuana plants in their neighborhoods, Police Chief Kevin Burke had proposed guidelines to better regulate cultivation.

He said Healdsburg residents tend to be tolerant, but many have strong opinions about backyard grows.

"They don't want to see it. They don't want to smell it. They don't want it next door to their home," Burke said.

With no public comment, the Planning Commission last month unanimously recommended that the City Council approve the new guidelines, which would have allowed patients to grow up to 12 mature plants and 24 immature ones — twice what state law stipulates.

But Burke noted the state Supreme Court also allowed medical marijuana patients to grow more plants if a doctor recommends it.

The Healdsburg ordinance also would have limited cultivation to indoors and not within 300 feet of schools, churches, hospitals, child care and youth centers.

On Monday, after the issue was publicized, more than a dozen people spoke to the council, most of them critical of the proposed ordinance.

Members of medical marijuana groups urged the council to allow outdoor gardens, similar to Sebastopol, which allows them with high, opaque fences.

They said low income disabled patients especially can benefit from outdoor growing, especially since Healdsburg bans marijuana dispensaries along with most cities in Sonoma County, other than Santa Rosa, Sebastopol and Cotati.

But other speakers questioned if the proposed number of plants in Healdsburg wasn't excessive.

Chief Burke said Healdsburg wants to avoid incidents of violence associated with marijuana, including the use of guns to either steal or defend the plants.

Although Healdsburg has avoided serious injuries or incidents of shots fired, Burke said that without some regulations, it's only a matter of time.

Over the past four years, Healdsburg Police have formally investigated 23 instances of cultivation, mostly involving "medical marijuana."

Police also have investigated and responded to other criminal cases directly related to cultivation such as robberies, thefts and physical assaults.

When state voters approved medical marijuana use in 1996, it allowed for the cultivation and use of medical marijuana but didn't set standards. In 2003, state law spelled out that qualified patients or primary caregivers could possess up to eight ounces of dried marijuana and maintain no more than six mature or 12 immature plants per patient.

However, cities and counties also are allowed to enact their own statutes to exceed state limits. Sebastopol is the only city in Sonoma County to do so. In 2010, the City Council approved a law that allows patients and caregivers to grow up to 30 plants in gardens that can cover as much as 100 square feet. They also can possess as much as three pounds of processed marijuana at the garden site.

In unincorporated Sonoma County, the guidelines are similar to Sebastopol's.

You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or clark.mason@pressdemocrat.com