New cannabis stores open up in underserved areas of Sonoma, Napa counties
The challenges of the cannabis business still linger as the multibillion-dollar industry continues to emerge from out of the shadow in California. But there has emerged one bright spot: More licensed dispensaries are opening in areas that are underserved.
That’s especially been the case locally in eastern Sonoma County and Napa County ― an area of more than 200,000 residents. That region was one of those so-called “weed deserts,” and within a month, has had more brick-and-mortar shops opening for consumers to buy products from flower to drinks and chocolates for recreational use.
On Friday, the Solful dispensary opened its location in east Santa Rosa across from Montgomery Village as co-founder Eli Melrod saw an opportunity in a spot with affluent customers and next to a well-visited shopping area.
On April 20, entrepreneur Erich Pearson will open his latest SPARC dispensary in the town of Sonoma, which will be the first one in the Sonoma Valley and well positioned to serve both tourists and seniors.
That activity has been preceded by the city of Napa finally allowing dispensaries to sell for adult use within its jurisdiction. Four of the six shops operating under medical usage in Napa have already been cleared to do so for adult clients.
Long time coming
The openings have been a long time in preparation and come after passage in 2016 of Proposition 64, which legalized adult recreational use in California. The law went into effect for retailers on Jan. 1, 2018.
“We are four or five years from legalization, and I still think we are just scratching the surface. There are still so many consumers who are interested and who are on the sidelines,” said Melrod, who serves a chief executive officer.
Solful also operates a store in Sebastopol where customers come as far as from Marin County, also another underserved area.
The openings come as the cannabis industry still grapples with many other obstacles and it enters an era of consolidation. Small growers have especially been affected by a combination of a high tax rate and competition from illegal weed coming in from out of state.
There also has been uneven regulation and delays at the local level, including Sonoma County. Meanwhile, efforts for legalization at the federal level have not passed Congress.
The increase in licensed retail outlets reflects a growing appetite for cannabis products in the aftermath of passage of Proposition 64, especially from those who have not been regular users or prefer products that they do not have to smoke, advocates say.
They are dubbed as “canna-curious.”
There were about 12,000 retailers who operated under medical usage rules from Proposition 215 that was passed in 1996, said Hezekiah Allen, the former head of the California Growers Association who has served as a consultant for the industry. That level dropped to about 400 licensed dispensaries when new rules for adult usage were implemented more than four years ago, Allen said.
But retailers have increased their reach.
The number of commercial storefront dispensaries in the state totaled 933 as of this month, which was an increase from 770 in July 2021, according to the state Department of Cannabis Control. Those figures do not include microbusinesses.
“There is sustained consumer demand beyond what retailers are able to do,” Allen said.
That’s what Pearson, a Glen Ellen resident, saw in the opportunity to open his new dispensary along Highway 12 in a building from the early 1900s that once housed the renowned Sonoma Grove resort. The new space will compliment SPARC’s other local outlets in Santa Rosa and Sebastopol. Other entrepreneurs also are planning dispensaries for Sonoma Valley.
“It’s a long time coming,” said Pearson, whose company also grows and produces cannabis products. “Once it’s up and operating, some of the people who were skeptical of the idea often come around.”
The area also has great growth potential, especially with the large number of seniors who live in the valley, such as those at Oakmont Village, a community of more than 4,500 residents of 55 years and older, he added. SPARC intends to do outreach with seniors in the area who may be looking for cannabis alternatives from the pharmaceutical drugs they are taking for such conditions as anxiety, Pearson added.
“Often times, we get a senior and they say, ‘I haven’t smoked cannabis since the ‘70s,’” he said.
Such outreach would be welcome, said Heidi Klyn, president of the Oakmont Cannabis Club. “I think it’s great because a lot of people don’t want to drive as far,” said Klyn. She noted that there has been an influx of those less than 60 years old into the community and that they have a much more open view on cannabis.
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