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Santa Rosa medical marijuana businesses gain access to wider, nonresidential swath of city

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The Santa Rosa City Council declared Tuesday that medical marijuana support services such as testing labs and oil extraction businesses can legally be located in certain nonresidential areas of the city.

The move, which takes effect immediately, opens up significant new areas of the city to the medical cannabis industry, as long as they follow a host of other regulations.

City officials said the goal was to close the gap that exists between two cannabis uses that are already allowed in the city with property permits — commercial cultivation of medical marijuana and sales at dispensaries.

Clare Hartman, deputy director of planning, told the council that it made no sense for those two activities to be permitted but to “not have a way for them to get from point A to point B.”

The city didn’t come up with a whole new set of land use regulations for medical cannabis, but rather identified where such uses fit into existing ones already allowed.

Allowed uses in specified areas now include testing, laboratories, non-volatile manufacturing, distribution and transportation. Businesses will still be required to secure building permits, fire inspections and comply with other safeguards.

The council decision came after a high-profile June raid by local and federal authorities of a large Santa Rosa-based producer of cannabis oil-infused products. The crackdown highlighted the extent of local cannabis production already occurring in the city.

Volatile manufacturing processes, such as those using highly flammable substances like butane, will not be allowed under the city’s new policy. That triggered a discussion about the challenges the city may face in allowing uses that have not yet been clarified by the state under its licensing scheme.

“This is the sort of ambiguous space that we live in right now,” City Manager Sean McGlynn said.

The state has allowed local jurisdictions to permit medical cannabis related activities before it finishes its own rules in 2018.

Councilman Gary Wysocky suggested the city should come up with its own clear definitions of what constitutes a volatile versus non-volatile operation.

“I don’t know if we can wait for the state,” Wysocky said.

Debra Tsouprake, who said she delivers cannabis oils and tinctures to seriously ill patients in Sonoma County, urged the council to approve the zoning interpretation.

The CEO of Green Heart Alternative Health Care said she hopes the city will keep the cost of compliance reasonably low and “not knock out the small-time farmers, not allow the big corporations to come in here and take over.”

Recognizing that many businesses like Tsouprake’s are here and operating already, Councilwoman Julie Combs said she wanted the city to explore a “safe harbor” program to protect good operators who might otherwise fear repercussions from the city for coming forward.

She hoped, for example, that existing businesses wouldn’t have to clear out their existing spaces and “hide it in the truck” to satisfy some requirement that buildings can’t be occupied for such uses until approved by the city.

“I think that would be pretty silly,” she said.

The council directed the cannabis policy subcommittee to explore such a program and return to the council with a proposal.

A comprehensive set of cannabis regulations in the city is expected to come before the council later this year. Regardless of that policy, businesses covered under Tuesday’s decision will have a legal right to operate in the newly permitted locations going forward.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 707-521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @srcitybeat.

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