By BRETT WILKISON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Sonoma County supervisors are set to consider a sweeping overhaul of rules governing medical marijuana, changes they say are needed to halt the spread of legal pot retailers and illegal pot gardens across the region and halt a wave of violent crime they claim is linked to the drug.
The changes to be discussed for the first time Tuesday by the Board of Supervisors include a cap on the number of dispensaries that can sell medical marijuana outside city limits. The limit would be set at seven shops, two more than the five that currently operate under the county’s existing rules.
The proposal would also ramp up regulation and law enforcement for medical pot gardens, authorizing work on tighter limits for the location and size of cultivation sites and setting fees that would cover taxpayer costs for patrolling and overseeing medical marijuana operations.
County leaders say the crackdown is necessary to rein in a business — legal or not — that they say has contributed to at least three homicides over the past year. Environmental pollution and neighborhood nuisances are other problems linked to the drug, leaders said.
“We have a substance that is unregulated and untaxed, and we have an ethical responsibility to address public health and safety issues,” said Supervisor Shirlee Zane, one of two board members who helped draw up the recommendations.
Sheriff Steve Freitas, who was consulted for the proposal, cited a link to marijuana in two local homicides in the past 10 days, plus eight home invasion robberies over the past year as reason for his support of the rule changes.
Medical marijuana advocates strongly dispute the link to crime, saying the problem is the illegal pot trade and the morass of laws that authorize medicinal pot use and cultivation in California while banning it on the federal level.
In one Sonoma County courtroom alone Monday there were 17 defendants in cases involving cultivation, possession and transportation of marijuana, a trend that one expert said is common statewide and reflects the difficulty in enforcing conflicting marijuana laws.
The proposal comes less than three weeks after federal authorities announced their resumed crackdown in California on medicinal marijuana, which voters authorized in a 1996 ballot initiative.
It also coincides with similar efforts by other local governments seeking to rein in the spread of both the medical marijuana business and the illegal pot trade.
A recent California appellate court decision could complicate matters for those governments as it throws into legal limbo many of their efforts to permit legal medical pot retailers.
Bill Panzer, an Oakland-based attorney who co-authored the 1996 initiative and represents medical marijuana users and suppliers, said he was surprised the county would move on new regulations amid such uncertainty.
County attorneys said they were aware of the decision and were watching the case, which could go to the state Supreme Court.
Several local medical marijuana providers, meanwhile, said they welcomed Sonoma County’s proposed cap, citing other cities and counties where such limits have provided greater certainty for nonprofit organizations authorized to sell the drug.
“The real enemy that we have in this whole issue right now is the ambiguity in the law,” said Robert Jacob, executive director of Peace in Medicine Healing Center, which operates a pair of dispensaries in Santa Rosa and Sebastopol. The nonprofit is not governed by the county rules, which apply only to unincorporated areas.
Representatives of four county-overseen marijuana dispensaries declined to comment Monday on the proposed rules.
The manager of a cooperative outside Guerneville acknowledged the cap could be an economic boon for already established clinics.
“We’ll just sit back and cross our fingers and hope that it works to our advantage,” said the woman, who said she managed the Riverside Wellness cooperative on River Road and would only give her first name, Jackie.
Other advocates said they were concerned that tougher regulations could price out smaller operators through fees and overly burdensome standards, leaving existing suppliers with an ever-centralizing monopoly.
Supervisors stressed that patients’ access to medical marijuana would not be constrained under the new rules.
At present, four suppliers are in line for the two additional county permits that would be available under the new rules. The applicant list includes Riverside Wellness, which is currently open on a conditional basis.
Four dispensaries are also located in the cities of Santa Rosa, Sebastopol and Cotati, all of which have instituted caps. All other local cities have either banned or otherwise prohibited dispensaries.
Zane said the resulting number is sufficient to serve the area. “How many dispensaries do you need to supply one drug?” she said.
But one medical marijuana patient interviewed Monday outside a county-permitted pot dispensary in Guerneville said he was concerned a cap could limit his choice of supplier.
J.C. Floming, 57, of Santa Rosa, said he relies on a few specific strains of cannabis to soothe his back pain and ailments related to Hepatitis-C.
Floming said he belongs to Marvin’s Gardens, the Guerne-ville dispensary, Organicann outside Santa Rosa, and others in Mendocino County so that he can always get the kind he prefers.
“Sometimes I can’t get my brand of medicine at one, so I go to the other,” Floming said. “I want to be able to get what works for me.”
The proposed changes would be to a 2006 ordinance that several county leaders said is now ineffective in regulating the medical pot business.
It set standards for location and operation of dispensaries and size and possession limits for medical marijuana cultivators. But it did not set a cap on dispensaries or establish targeted regulations and fees for growers, a decision that one supervisor called “shortsighted.”
“We are in a very different ballgame,” said Supervisor Valerie Brown, the only member of the current board who was serving at the time.
Brown, who worked with Zane to craft Tuesday’s proposal, cited cases of illegal building, electrical, water and pesticide use found on marijuana farms throughout the county.
Most turn out to be illegal operations, Freitas said. Of the 165 sites reported to his office this year, 63 of the 65 investigated were illegal, he said.
In crimes investigated by his office, there is little difference between medical marijuana and illegal pot, he added.
“Quite frankly, the lines are so blurred it’s hard to tell,” he said.
An informal vote by the supervisors Tuesday could authorize two phases of work: one on the dispensary cap, which could return to the board within 120 days, and another on the regulation and enforcement of medical pot gardens, which could come back in six to eight months. Both efforts would first come through the county Planning Commission.
Total cost of the work is estimated at up to $250,000, an amount that officials said could later be recouped through fees charged to medical marijuana suppliers.
Staff Writers Julie Johnson and Paul Payne contributed to this story.