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Sebastopol City Council poised to approve rules for recreational cannabis sales

A customer leaves with his purchase at the Peace in Medicine dispensary in Santa Rosa on Monday, May 22, 2017. The dispensary is merging with SPARC, a San Francisco collective. (KENT PORTER/ PD)

JULIE JOHNSON,

Sebastopol is on track to allow its two dispensaries to sell cannabis for recreational use to adults at the start of 2018, which would make it the first local government in Sonoma County to do so.

California adults across the state can buy marijuana come New Year’s Day, and the question is what stores will be allowed to sell it. Cities and counties across the state have been scrambling to draft new rules either permitting or banning it, with many lagging to get local laws written by January.

Sebastopol’s City Council Tuesday decided it will vote Dec. 19 on an urgency ordinance putting temporary rules in place for sales, manufacturing, cultivation and other aspects of the non-medical industry.

Sebastopol Mayor Patrick Slayter said the city should be proactive in regulating how the local cannabis trade takes shape and focus on “the existing infrastructure, existing businesses that have knowledge of the industry, that have a positive track record.”

“Each community is making decisions, and that to me is what’s important, getting our stake in the ground,” Slayter said.

The city — often touted as a local bastion for progressive values — is home to one of the region’s flagship dispensaries, Peace in Medicine, founded a decade ago. Founder Robert Jacob served on the City Council, with a stint as mayor, making him one of the first elected officials in the state who was open about his work in the medical marijuana industry.

Slayter said the dispensary, now called SPARC, had the kind of “positive track record” the city was looking for in marijuana outlets, and that it had helped him better understand the cannabis industry.

“If anyplace can do it right, it’s Sebastopol,” Omar Figueroa, a Sebastopol resident and cannabis attorney, said in an interview Wednesday. “It’s a small city and it has a really active citizenry. … It’s a great place to start this social experiment in Sonoma County.”

Figueroa and other local industry leaders urged the council at Tuesday night’s meeting to lead the way in Sonoma County. No other places in the county have rules in place allowing existing dispensaries to sell to adults without medical marijuana recommendations by January. The Santa Rosa City Council will meet about its marijuana regulations Dec. 12.

“We’ve led on this issue over the years … it makes sense to lead again,” Craig Litwin, a former Sebastopol mayor, longtime medical marijuana activist and cannabis business consultant, told the Sebastopol council.

It’s a critical moment for cannabis businesses trying to gain traction in the burgeoning marketplace. Nick Caston, a Santa Rosa-based lobbyist and board member with the California Cannabis Industry Association of Sonoma County, said jurisdictions that delay allowances for the production and sales of cannabis for nonmedical purposes will hamper local business.

“The adult-use market is important not just for retailers but for all the manufacturers, cultivators and other folks working hard on the North Coast to be ready for this market,” Caston said.

Eli Melrod, operator of Sebastopol’s second dispensary, Solful, which opened its doors in October, said they’re turning people away each day who don’t have medical recommendations, confused by the web of new and existing laws governing cannabis commerce. California adults have been able to lawfully possess and consume nonmedical cannabis since voters passed Proposition 64 in November 2016, but businesses can’t produce or sell it until January 2018.

Some City Council members pushed back on the drafted rules before them at Tuesday night’s meeting, suggesting they needed additional scrutiny before becoming law. Councilwoman Neysa Hinton questioned whether delivery services should be allowed for recreational cannabis, noting that bars don’t deliver beer.

Councilman Michael Carnacchi said he wanted greater standards in place for indoor marijuana cultivation, even for small noncommercial projects, to protect against concerns such as fires caused by shoddy electrical work.

But the majority of the council voted to move ahead with the temporary rules. The Planning Commission next year will continue developing permanent rules.

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