Karen Kohley took an important step Wednesday toward bringing her Sonoma County medical marijuana growing operation out of the shadows by becoming the first to apply for a county business permit.
On the opening day paperwork was accepted, Kohley, who owns Flora Cal Farms, walked into the county’s Permit and Resource Management Department, handed over a packet describing her 22,000-square-foot warehouse and wrote out a check for $4,500.
If her application passes muster in the coming months, Kohley and her husband will be legal in the eyes of the county and eligible for a state license when those become available Jan. 1.
“It feels really amazing,” said the longtime cannabis grower, who paid a friend to camp overnight in line in anticipation of a rush that never materialized. “We’re excited to build out our vision.”
Kohley was among about 30 people seeking a permit under the county’s cannabis ordinance adopted in December, two months after California voters legalized marijuana for recreational use.
The ordinance sets requirements for cultivators, manufacturers, distributors, transporters, testing facilities, dispensaries and nurseries. Locally permitted businesses are expected to have an edge when the state opens its process for issuing state licenses.
“This is the beginning of a long process for the end of prohibition,” said Tawnie Logan, chairwoman of the Sonoma County Growers Alliance and the California Growers Association, who was at the county offices Wednesday.
Although Logan estimates there are 5,000 cannabis operations in the county, only a small number sought permits, likely because they were swamped by the amount of regulation involved in bringing new industrial spaces and old farms into compliance.
However, she commended the county for being among the first to adopt such a plan. And she said the fees were modest compared to other jurisdictions like Desert Hot Springs in Southern California, which charges five times as much for a similar permit and development application.
“I’d say the industry is overwhelmed by how fast things are moving,” Logan said.
Supervisor Lynda Hopkins said the county will assemble a cannabis advisory committee in the coming weeks to help with any fine-tuning. The committee will be composed of medical marijuana purveyors as well as community members.
“This is the first date, so to speak, between the cannabis industry and the county,” Hopkins said. “We will see where it goes.”
Those who had their papers in order Wednesday stepped through the glass doors, where they were greeted by county planning officials and a pink box of doughnuts.
Once inside, they were issued numbers — Kohley got No. 420, a humorous touch referring to cannabis consumption — and invited up to a desk to submit applications.
“There’s been a steady flow of applicants,” said Tim Ricard, the county’s cannabis program manager. “It’s worked out well because the staff is able to process things and give people the appropriate amount of time.”
Lauren Fraser, founder of River Collective, a Santa Rosa-based cannabis distributor, was looking to expand her business in the era of legalized recreational marijuana.
She spent months preparing architectural drawings of her warehouse in unincorporated Santa Rosa and going over her application with a lawyer. Her fees totaled a couple of thousands dollars, she said.
“We need a local permit to apply for a state license,” Fraser said.