Santa Rosa is set to relax its restrictions on medical marijuana dispensaries, including removing the 500-patient cap and extending the hours of operation.
The changes the City Council will consider Tuesday are in response to concerns from medical cannabis providers and their patients that the rules in place for the past eight years are overly burdensome.
"Medical cannabis is legal in California, and our rules are really quite restrictive," said Councilwoman Erin Carlstrom, who served on a subcommittee that unanimously recommended the changes.
In 2005, Santa Rosa was the first city in Sonoma County and one of the first in the state to pass laws governing medical marijuana dispensaries, which began sprouting up statewide after voters passed Proposition 215 in 1996.
Because Santa Rosa was one of the first to act, it did so cautiously. Only two dispensaries were approved, each with a 500-patient limit. A host of other regulations covered hours of operations, signage and proximity to schools and parks.
Collectively, those regulations have had the effect of keeping a lid on medical marijuana sales in the city.
The patient cap has meant that many residents have to go outside the city to make their purchases, an inconvenience for patients and a loss of tax revenue for the city.
"The 500-patient cap is a problem," said Robert
Jacob, executive director of the Peace in Medicine dispensary and mayor of Sebastopol. "It doesn't make much sense."
Santa Rosa is one of only two cities in the state with a patient cap, the other being Cotati, which has a 1,000-patient limit.
The result is that after the two dispensaries in the city -- Peace in Medicine on North Dutton Avenue and Sonoma Patient Group on Cleveland Avenue -- make their 500th sale for the month, patients have to go to dispensaries in other cities or to one of several that have sprung up just outside city limits.
That's a lot of lost revenue for Sonoma Patient Group, which has 7,000 patients, said David McCullick, vice president of the dispensary.
"It's really tough for us to even break even," McCullick said.
The cap would be removed under the new rules, with the city retaining the right to limit the number of patients if problems are reported in surrounding neighborhoods or businesses.
The length of dispensary permits also would be increased under the new rules. After an initial one-year permit period, permits would thereafter be valid for two years, assuming operations comply with local and state laws.
The allowable hours of operation also would be extended to 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. seven days a week. Hours currently are limited to 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday, and dispensaries are closed on Sundays and state holidays.
Many patients work until after 5 p.m., and Sunday is a popular day for people to get errands done, Jacob said.
The new rules also will allow dispensary workers to use marijuana on the job, but only by ingestion or use of a vaporizer and only outside the view of the public. Smoking will not be allowed. Since dispensary workers are required to be medicinal marijuana patients, preventing them from taking their legal medication would have potentially violated their rights, Carlstrom said.