Imagine if all the grape growers, vintners and wine retailers in Sonoma County had to get in line at a county office to stay in business. It’d be a crush.
Cannabis industry operators of Sonoma County are set to experience just that. County workers are preparing to be slammed Wednesday when the county will begin accepting permit applications for medical marijuana businesses, heralding the start of a new era for a regulated marijuana market in California.
“Think about it: It’s an existing industry that we’re essentially trying to permit in a very short amount of time,” said Tim Ricard, Sonoma County’s new cannabis ombudsman. “It’s an exciting day for the county and it’s an exciting day for our local cannabis businesses.”
Sonoma County is on the leading edge with local governments that have already established rules to regulate California’s newly legal marijuana industry, joining counties like Monterey, Humboldt, Trinity, Mendocino, Calaveras and San Luis Obispo. Locally, Santa Rosa began issuing cannabis permits last year. Mendocino County began accepting permit applications from cultivators in May, under a new set of rules established in anticipation of statewide regulations. It is in the process of developing an ordinance to regulate other related businesses such as manufacturers and testing laboratories.
California’s new laws for marijuana businesses require that operators have local permits before seeking state licenses. Businesses already permitted locally have an edge come January when California is slated to open its process for issuing state licenses.
“It’s about having a stable business operation by the time a statewide licensed marketplace goes online,” said Hezekiah Allen, president of the California Growers Association. “To have a permitted facility with stabilized business operations will be a real advantage.”
It’s a shiny new era being met by a DMV-like experience. Multiple Sonoma County departments will field cannabis business applications.
Most will go through Permit Sonoma, where staff will handle applications for cannabis cultivators, manufacturers, distributors, transporters, testing facilities, dispensaries and nurseries. The Department of Agriculture/ Weights & Measures will issue permits to outdoor cultivators up to 10,000 square feet in certain agricultural zones, but applicants must schedule an appointment.
Edibles manufacturers and dispensaries must start with the permit department and then get approvals from the Environmental Health Department. There are five dispensaries in operation in unincorporated Sonoma County. The current ordinance allows for nine.
“There is a scramble, certainly people are working to get their ducks in a row,” said Craig Litwin, a cannabis consultant whose firm the 421 Group is helping clients navigate the county permitting process.
Litwin said his company’s clients are mostly cultivators, of which “a solid handful” have their permits ready to be submitted on Wednesday, and “many others (are) waiting in the wings.”
Ricard anticipates about 100 businesses will show up with application packages on Wednesday to the county’s permit office in the county government complex in Santa Rosa. They’ll be greeted by receptionists, given a number and directed to waiting areas. Two staff members will be on hand to prescreen applications, weeding out paperwork with obvious omissions while shepherding prepared applicants to county planners.
The planners will meet with applicants for about 45 minutes or an hour for an intake procedure, a first step that gets them into the computer system and establishes a relationship with a planner who will work with the business.
From there, applications could take between three months to a year to be approved, depending on the project’s complexity and requirements for some operators like public hearings.
“We expect very heavy traffic, and we’re doing our best to prepare for a very large crush of applicants trying to be first in line,” Ricard said.
There is no cutoff date to submit an application, and Ricard hopes people will take the time to ensure the applications are complete before coming in.
“A complete application that comes in a week or two later is much better than an incomplete application on Wednesday,” Ricard said.
There is no limit to the number of permits the county will issue for cannabis-related land uses.
“This has been an existing industry in Sonoma County for a very long time, and many of the operators have not had to work with the government before,” Ricard said.
Permits are not required for personal use or personal cultivation with up to 100 square feet in a residence or for backyard gardens with restrictions, such as requirements marijuana plants be hidden from public streets or walkways. Outdoor cultivation is not allowed at multifamily residences in unincorporated Sonoma County.
You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or firstname.lastname@example.org.