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North Coast medical marijuana entrepreneurs met with state regulators in Santa Rosa on Thursday for a brainstorming session aimed at soliciting local input before the state begins writing regulations for California’s medical marijuana businesses.

The Medical Marijuana Regulation and Safety Act signed into law last year established just the skeleton of a system but did not codify the specific rules for cultivation, distribution, testing, quality assurance and a variety of other cannabis businesses.

Thursday’s meeting at the Santa Rosa Veterans Memorial building drew more than 200 people and was the state’s third in a series in cities across the state, from Redding to San Diego, to vet ideas with those already involved in the industry.

“People feel scared to get involved, but this is the community writing their future,” said Tawnie Logan, executive director of the Sonoma County Growers Alliance.

Lori Ajax, chief of the Bureau of Medical Cannabis Regulation, said one theme emerging in the meetings is the concern about the potential for monopolies.

“A lot of small business people are asking, ‘How can the system help us compete with big businesses?’ ” Ajax said.

The regulations will create a licensing structure that has been missing since medical cannabis was legalized 20 years ago. The state expects to write the rules by the end of 2017 and begin accepting applications for licenses on Jan. 1, 2018.

Meanwhile, California voters will have the opportunity in November to vote on legalizing marijuana’s recreational use. Ajax said the state is moving forward with this process, while keeping in mind that legalizing recreational use could affect state regulations.

The state is developing five licenses — manufacturing, distribution, transportation, dispensaries, testing labs and cultivation — handled through three different state departments.

Businesses must first acquire permits from a local government.

An-Chi Tsou, senior policy adviser at the Bureau of Medical Marijuana Regulation, said the law clearly gives California’s 482 cities and 52 counties the ability to determine what aspects of the industry, if any, can occur in local jurisdictions.

“If your local government doesn’t have a local ordinance, you cannot operate,” Tsou said.

Medical marijuana businesses are still banned in at least 60 percent of California, according to an analysis by the California Growers Association.

Sonoma County and some of its cities permit dispensaries.

Santa Rosa has so far taken the lead in broadening the types of activities allowed to include processing, manufacturing, distribution and cultivation businesses, and has begun issuing zoning clearances.

Tsou said that the state aims to create a system that won’t block people with criminal backgrounds out of hand.

They are considering requiring an application to include a “letter of good standing” from a local government to help the state determine a person has been “rehabilitated.”

She said it’s likely the state will allow local governments to define “good standing.”

That raised alarms for many in the room.

“It’s easier to get a gun,” said Dona Frank, founder of OrganiCann dispensary in Santa Rosa, during a small group discussion. “Cities and counties, they’re going to determine that you’ve been rehabilitated?”

Ciaran McCarthy, manager of Sonoma Lab Works whose colleague Dennis Hunter was arrested in June after Santa Rosa police raided their Circadian Way facility, said he’s concerned people with convictions based on outdated laws will be barred from working in the field.

Hunter, who served time in federal prison for marijuana cultivation, was released from jail after the recent arrest and the Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office has not filed any charges against him.

“All the folks who have risked it all to build this industry, does this prevent them from continuing in the field?” McCarthy said.

Thursday’s meeting ran more than four hours, with people discussing topics in small groups, from general ideas to specifics on manufacturing.

Participants came from dispensaries, law firms, farms, laboratories and delivery services.

“We’re here to listen; both the state and the people in this room are potential customers,” said Tim Woodbury, director of government relations for Accela, a San Ramon-based software company that built licensing and inspection software in Colorado, where marijuana is legal.

For more information about the developing regulations and to provide input, visit www.bmcr.ca.gov.

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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