By BRETT WILKISON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday sparred over a proposed cap on medical marijuana dispensaries, part of larger overhaul of rules on medical pot that drew support from speakers concerned about public safety issues and criticism from those wanting more facilities for pot patients.
Supervisors agreed on the need to revise the county’s 2006 medical marijuana ordinance, now seen as insufficient to govern the burgeoning North Coast marijuana business.
But they differed sharply over the details of a proposed cap on the number of medical pot dispensaries operating outside city limits.
The board ultimately endorsed a tentative cap of nine shops, two more than proposed. Nine is equal to the five dispensaries currently operating under the existing county rules, plus the four suppliers with pending applications for permits.
The late change, after nearly two hours of board discussion and public comment, came over the initial opposition of Supervisors Shirlee Zane and Valerie Brown, who had proposed a lower cap in their report recommending the rule changes.
The disagreement prompted a last minute flurry of back-and-forth comments between supervisors — unusual for the current board — and ended when Zane and Brown yielded to a majority led by chairman Efren Carrillo. He argued that there was no factual basis in the report to support any number, including a cap of seven dispensaries.
Some medical marijuana advocates and patients lodged the same complaint, saying the county failed to look at a cap based on population size or patient demand.
They also disputed claims by Zane and Brown that seven dispensaries for the unincorporated county population of 150,000 people — plus the four operating inside city limits — would be sufficient to serve local patients.
“We don’t have any numbers. You don’t have one statistic,” said Michael Shambrook, a Santa Rosa resident and attorney who represents North Coast dispensaries.
Zane, especially, took issue with the criticism. She said the original proposed cap was based on conversations with county law enforcement and health officials and with representatives of two dispensaries, only one of which she would name.
She mentioned in particular the involvement of Sheriff Steve Freitas, who in interviews Monday confirmed he supported a cap but said he had not suggested a specific number.
“It wasn’t some number that we pulled out of the sky,” Zane insisted in her comments from the dais Tuesday.
Carrillo shot back, however, beginning a debate that punctuated the end of the board’s nine-hour day.
“I’d like a cap. I’m not opposed to a cap,” Carrillo said. “I just don’t think (the number) seven has been vetted through the process. I don’t think I have the information in front of me today.”
The hot-button topic of medical marijuana is posing problems for many local governments in California.
City and county leaders blame the policy struggle on the clash between the state’s 1996 voter-approved law sanctioning medical marijuana and federal law, which holds the drug illegal in all cases.
Audience members and officials both noted that Tuesday’s discussion came less than three weeks after federal authorities announced their renewed crackdown on medicinal pot suppliers.
Zane and Brown said conflicting laws would continue to hamper county efforts to establish clearer rules. Both supervisors spoke in favor of legalizing marijuana.
“Unfortunately folks, we are caught in this tense place between what the state says is legal and what the feds say is illegal, and between a violent black market and a legitimate (medical) drug,” Zane said.
In addition to the proposed cap on dispensaries, the proposed overhaul in county rules includes a move to tighten regulation and enforcement of medical pot gardens and set fees for growers that would cover county law enforcement and planning costs connected to local marijuana operations.
County leaders say the limits are needed to halt the spread of gardens — legal or not — which some officials claim are a chief cause of violent and petty crime, environmental pollution and other problems in the area.
Supervisor David Rabbitt put himself squarely in that camp Tuesday, saying he saw a direct correlation between pot cultivation and crime.
“It’s not about medicine,” Rabbitt said. “It’s about money and greed.” He later called his comments “harsh” but defended his basic claim.
Several speakers voiced their support for the proposed crackdown on growers, saying legal operations had sparked safety concerns near their rural homes.
Two landowners described scores of unknown men and dogs guarding a marijuana operation off Cougar Lane overlooking Sonoma Valley.
“It’s gotten out of hand. Something has to be done,” said landowner Lauretta Hayes.
Medical marijuana patient Bruce Buckner of Monte Rio spoke in defense of the dispensaries and medicinal growers. He scolded the board and authorities for what he said was a failure to enforce existing laws that could reduce problems caused by illegal operations.
“I’m concerned that you’ve blurred the distinction between legal medical grows and illegal trespass grows,” he said.
A formal vote on the dispensary cap is still up to four months away and would first have to go through the county Planning Commission.
The same goes for other moves endorsed Tuesday, including the tighter set of county regulations on medical pot cultivation and potential fees charged to growers, which could come back to the board in six to eight months.