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Find more in-depth cannabis news, culture and politics at EmeraldReport.com, authoritative marijuana coverage from the PD.

John Bekas suffers from epilepsy. His hip, shattered in a car crash 10 years ago, still hurts.

The 40-year-old warehouse worker finds that cannabis gives him relief from the symptoms of both chronic conditions.

For the past two years, Bekas and his wife have grown marijuana in the backyard of their single-family home in southwest Santa Rosa, harvesting enough sun-grown plants to inexpensively supply their needs nearly year-round. Now Santa Rosa, like other communities, is considering banning all outdoor growing of all cannabis — medical or recreational. Bekas doesn’t think that’s fair.

“They are basically forcing people to either go to a cannabis club or have nothing,” Bekas said. “But cannabis clubs will bankrupt you.”

Bekas is one of many Santa Rosa residents who are confounded by the city’s plan to ban outdoor cultivation of cannabis after effectively allowing it for decades. He’s got his garden plot ready, foot-tall seedlings prepped to plant into their GeoPots, but now he doesn’t know what to do.

“We have no idea what’s happening this season,” Bekas said.

One month after shelving the proposal to get more public input, Santa Rosa is once again poised to enact an emergency ban on outdoor growing of cannabis. The prohibition would go into place immediately if passed Tuesday by the City Council.

Concerned that odor complaints and cannabis- related crime will only increase in the wake of the passage of Proposition 64, the city is planning to incorporate an outdoor growing ban into its comprehensive set of cannabis regulations slated to go into effect later this year.

But the city didn’t want local backyard growers to get too invested in pot gardens that might become illegal before they reach maturity.

“We have an obligation to let them know that we’re not jumping on that bus right now,” Councilman John Sawyer said.

Hence the haste to pass a ban that goes into effect immediately. Normally, new local laws go into effect 30 days after the second reading by the council. An “urgency ordinance” goes into effect upon passage and lasts 45 days. Such a move requires five votes of the seven-member council instead of the typical four-vote majority.

The City Council was set to consider the temporary ban last month, but it was postponed to get additional public comment after a number of residents said they had little warning. A special meeting of the city’s cannabis subcommittee in mid-April drew about 50 members of the public. The three-member committee, focusing on concerns about odors and public safety, agreed to move forward with the ban anyway.

State laws — from Proposition 215 approving medical use more than two decades ago to Proposition 64 legalizing recreational use in November — grant people the right to possess and grow cannabis, generally speaking up to 100 square feet for qualified patients and up to six plants for adult recreational use.

But those laws also grant local governments the right to regulate land uses and enforce nuisance laws. The result is a dizzying patchwork of state and local regulations that can make it challenging for individuals to know just what rules apply to their specific properties.

“This is something that every jurisdiction is struggling with right now,” said Councilman Chris Rogers, a member of the subcommittee.

Find more in-depth cannabis news, culture and politics at EmeraldReport.com, authoritative marijuana coverage from the PD.

Santa Rosa is just the latest local government to grapple with the issue of outdoor cannabis growing. Several cities, like Sonoma and Rohnert Park, ban any cannabis cultivation outdoors outright. Others, like Healdsburg and Petaluma, carve out exemptions for cannabis patients, permitting them to grow up to three plants for personal use. The biggest fight over outdoor growing came to a head in December when Sonoma County supervisors rejected a plan to allow limited commercial pot growing in residential areas and banned outdoor cultivation for personal use in medium and high-density zoning districts.

A majority of supervisors were swayed by public safety concerns. The Sheriff’s Office links 774 crimes between July 2013 and July 2016 to the sale or distribution of marijuana. Santa Rosa, too, has had a rash of home-invasion robberies and shootings in recent years, some deadly.

A pre-dawn shootout on Acacia Lane in 2015 that left an intruder dead revealed a large-scale marijuana processing operation with a hash oil lab, cocaine, cash and guns, according to police.

In an effort to help control the pungent odors that mature marijuana plants give off, the city is proposing to allow cultivation in “accessory structures,” such as sheds or greenhouses.

There seems to be a fair amount of confusion about just what that means. Rogers said someone asked him at the meeting whether putting up some PVC pipes covered with a tarp would qualify as a greenhouse. Rogers said he didn’t think so. Other questions about permits, odor control and locks abound.

Santa Rosa’s director of planning and economic development, David Guhin, said accessory structures such as greenhouses would have to comply with height restrictions and setbacks from fences but would not need a building permit if they were under 120 square feet.

Proposition 64 requires such structures to be “fully enclosed and secure,” so the PVC and tarp example would be unlikely to comply, he said.

Cannabis advocates say there are both equity and safety problems caused by forcing pot growers indoors.

An outdoor gardener pushed inside may very well try to install powerful grow lights that could spark fires if not wired properly, said Sarah Shrader, who chairs the Sonoma County chapter of Americans for Safe Access, a medical cannabis advocacy group.

In addition, the idea of foregoing the area’s abundant natural sunshine in favor of energy-intensive indoor grow lights is not a very green solution from an energy consumption and greenhouse gas emission perspective, she said.

Then there’s the increased materials and energy costs, which may very well push indoor growing out of reach for many, she said.

“We’re talking about cutting off access for most low-income patients,” Shrader said.

She called it “hypocritical” for the city to advertise itself as being welcoming to the commercial cannabis industry, encouraging them to set up shop here, but then cracking down on patients who’ve been growing their medicine here peacefully for years.

Cannabis consultant Craig Litwin, principle of 421 Group, urges a compromise.

“At a minimum, allowing patients to cultivate outdoors is preferred both for the climate and the pocketbook, as the sun is free,” Litwin said. “Limiting outdoor cultivation areas for personal use to 100 square feet is a reasonable compromise.”

Bekas agrees that the move seems unfair to lower-income patients. He said he can grow about a pound of pot for $100, while an ounce of high-quality weed can sell at dispensaries for up to $400.

“I’m looking at investing in a shed, but a lot of people aren’t able to do that,” he said. “They can’t just throw up a greenhouse.”

Sawyer said his main goal is to get the large-scale cultivation operations out of residential areas so that residents can have the “peaceful enjoyment of their property,” which he said includes being able to keep one’s windows open on a warm summer night without being assaulted by the smells from “an agricultural product that creates a pungent odor about six weeks of the year.”

While he’s less concerned about people growing marijuana for personal use, Sawyer doesn’t see how the city’s small code enforcement staff can be tasked with ascertaining the difference between personal and commercial plants. Rogers, however, wonders if there might yet be a workable way to do just that. While he said he’s “comfortable” with the recommendation of the subcommittee, he’s also open to a compromise that might tweak the ordinance to preserve limited outdoor growing.

“I don’t want to restrict medicine from mom and pop who are growing one or two plants in their backyards,” Rogers said.

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

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