By PAUL PAYNE
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
A Sonoma County judge’s ruling invalidating the county’s medical marijuana dispensary ordinance has given rise to a bumper crop of new pot clubs, renewing debate about public safety and health risks.
Since Superior Court Judge Robert Boyd’s injunction Dec. 7 in the case of a Guerneville club, at least six dispensaries have opened on the outskirts of Santa Rosa, Cotati, Forestville and elsewhere in unincorporated Sonoma County.
In addition, a number of more transient clubs are appearing, taking advantage of the lack of county regulations prescribing where and when dispensaries can operate and what security measures must be taken.
Now there are as many as 25 dispensaries throughout the county and nine cities but that number “can change daily,” said Lisa Gygax, a lawyer for the OrganiCann dispensary on Todd Road.
“These people think it’s a free-for-all,” said Gygax, whose clients held the only county permit before the ordinance was vacated four months ago. “They are opening dangerously.”
Sonoma County Sheriff’s Sgt. Chris Bertoli said the injunction has created an opportunity for those seeking to enter the marijuana business.
“They are not seeing it as a window,” he said. “They’re seeing it as a sliding glass door. People out there, they’re taking advantage of it.”
And the results are not always good.
One of the new clubs, Starbuds on Santa Rosa Avenue, was robbed at gunpoint April 2. Owner Mark Gustely said he was hit over the head, tied up and robbed of his security system and $15,000 worth of marijuana.
Gygax alleges that the dispensary did not meet health and safety standards.
“I just got blind-sided through a mistake in staffing,” Gustely said. “We have a new security system now. We’re in good shape.”
Other new dispensaries have drawn the ire of neighbors because they are close to houses, parks or schools. About three weeks ago, Sheriff’s deputies raided a new dispensary outside Cotati at Stony Point Road and Highway 116, seizing hundreds of plants, four pounds of dried marijuana and cash, said owner Kerald Mitchell.
Deputies cited him on charges of possession for sales of drugs, but he said he’s running a non-profit collective that was living up to the standards of the now-defunct ordinance. Native Herbs provides marijuana for 245 patients, is on five acres, away from residential areas and children, and sells only to people with a valid medical condition, he said.
“I’ve done everything we could to make this perfect,” said Mitchell, who opened at the location Jan. 24.
County officials said the situation stems from a legal dispute with Marvin’s Gardens, a dispensary formerly located in Rio Nido. Owners applied for a permit two years ago but moved to downtown Guerneville after losing their lease. They didn’t seek a new permit, arguing another dispensary was allowed to transfer its application.
Last year, county planning officials sent Marvin’s Gardens a “stop” notice and the dispensary responded with a lawsuit, said Pete Parkinson, director of the county’s Permit and Resource Management Department.
On Nov. 4, Boyd issued an opinion siding with the county, but on Dec. 7, the judge reversed course and declared the entire ordinance invalid.
Boyd ruled that the county failed to demonstrate that “there is a rational governmental interest supporting the imposition of the special permit required.” He also wrote that the county did not demonstrate that any “health and safety issues” were involved in the use permit requirement. The judge reaffirmed his ruling in a modified order dated April 28.
Parkinson said since December, people have been interpreting the lack of an ordinance as a green light for new dispensaries, which don’t all appear to be meeting the previous standards.
The county’s position is the dispensaries are illegal, he said.
Parkinson said notices have gone out to at least five new businesses but he has not initiated any other enforcement action. It’s unclear whether additional dispensaries exist and some could be operating on a mobile basis, Parkinson said.
“It could be there are others out we don’t know about,” he said. “It’s been sort of a steady trickle.”
Just what will happen is uncertain. The county could appeal the judge’s ruling or amend its ordinance. Gygax said a fix would be easy. All the county has to do is show a need for regulating what has been called an “attractive nuisance.” The Starbuds robbery is proof, she said.
“You wouldn’t have a bank without security, would you?” Gygax said.
Ultimately, she favors some zoning changes to the old ordinance and possible limits on the total number of dispensaries. Above all, she said the county needs local rules to ensure continued access to marijuana used for medical purposes.
“They need to get the ordinance in place or there will be more robberies and raids,” Gygax said. “It’s just really bad for everyone.”