By BRETT WILKISON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Nine medical marijuana dispensaries will be permitted in the areas of Sonoma County outside city limits, the county Board of Supervisors decided Tuesday.
The cap, proposed and under review since last year, is designed to prevent an over-concentration of cannabis outlets in the county government’s jurisdiction.
A three-member majority of the board — Valerie Brown, Mike McGuire and Efren Carrillo — voted to set the cap at nine, the number recommended by the county Planning Commission last month and endorsed by the board for study last year.
Nine is equal to the six permitted dispensaries in the county, plus two approved last month by the Planning Commission — both await a review by the Board of Supervisors — and third that is going through the application process.
Supervisor David Rabbitt and board Chairwoman Shirlee Zane favored a cap of six dispensaries. They voiced concerns about underage use of pot and said a lower number of outlets was adequate to serve the county’s medicinal marijuana patients.
Medical marijuana advocates reacted to the vote with mixed opinions. Some supported a cap while pushing for a higher number of legal outlets. Others said a limit was unwarranted and would restrict patients’ access to the drug, which California voters made legal for medical purposes in 1996.
“I’m disappointed. I don’t think that nine dispensaries are enough to serve the population we have,” said Kumari Sivadas of the Sonoma Alliance for Medical Marijuana.
Other providers or advocates said the limits are appropriate.
The county joins three local cities that have allowed dispensaries with caps. There are two outlets in Santa Rosa, one in Cotati and one in Sebastopol. The remaining six cities in the county ban dispensaries.
The Board of Supervisors’ move is the first phase of a larger attempt to overhaul the county’s 2006 medical marijuana ordinance, a set of rules county leaders now see as inadequate to govern the burgeoning North Coast marijuana trade.
Later this year, supervisors are expected to look at tighter regulation of medical pot gardens.
The limit on dispensaries was seen as the easier of the two phases. But it was still troublesome because officials said they had little reliable data to show how many county residents use medicinal marijuana and how a cap might affect that population.
Information provided to the county last year by medical marijuana stakeholders suggested that 2 to 3 percent of the population uses medicinal pot, equating to a Sonoma County patient base of 9,700 to 14,500 people.
Based on those numbers and an average patient load among currently permitted dispensaries of 1,000 patients, county planners said a total number of 13 dispensaries in the county — including four in the cities and nine in the county area — would suffice.
Some providers agreed. “I think that nine dispensaries is an appropriate number to be serving the 150,000 people in the unincorporated area,” said Robert Jacob, executive director of Peace in Medicine Healing Center, which operates dispensaries in Santa Rosa and Sebastopol.
But Sivadas, the Sonoma Alliance for Medical Marijuana representative, estimated that up to 5 percent of county residents, or nearly 27,000 people, may use medical marijuana. Nine dispensaries won’t be able to serve that population, she said. “I think we should be looking at more,” she told the board.
Several members of the audience spoke in favor of tighter limits or banning dispensaries outright.
Summer Stone, a Santa Rosa Junior College student, said allowing a greater number sent the wrong message to youth. “We know that they’re there and we know that people are using them for other reasons besides medical (care)” she said.
Zane, a foe of new dispensaries in her Santa Rosa-centered district — there are two plus a third seeking the board’s approval — brought forward several county health officials to testify about drug addiction and rising marijuana use among local teens.
“Right now we don’t have a shortage of dispensaries and it is a major health issue,” Zane said.
Fellow board members Brown and Carrillo frowned on her tactics, saying the presentations were off topic.
“The question before us today is whether we should limit the number of medical marijuana dispensaries,” Brown said.
Rabbitt said he preferred the lower cap of six because he saw and heard of no shortage of supply for medical marijuana patients.
“I see this more as a business opportunity and less as patient need,” he said. “Six dispensaries is working now and six should work in the future.”
McGuire backed the cap of nine and then offered a list of ideas for the county’s second phase of work on the issue, including standardized security measures for dispensaries, a crackdown on marijuana delivery services and a proposal that dispensary operators voluntarily tax themselves.
Carrillo was expected to be the least likely supporter of a cap before Tuesday’s hearing. The west county supervisor has potentially the most dispensaries in his district: two have permits, a third is awaiting the board’s say next month and a fourth is in the application line.
But Carrillo became the swing vote, saying nothing prevented the board from revisiting its decision in the future.
“I think moving forward with the cap is the right idea,” he said.