By CLARK MASON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
In the heart of Wine Country, where harvest time produces pungent scents of fermenting grapes, the conversation these days is about another odor — that of skunk-like budding marijuana plants.
The harvest is still months away, but wine-centric Healdsburg is wrestling with guidelines for medical marijuana cultivation and whether to confine it indoors.
The intent behind keeping cultivation indoors is not only to suppress the smell, but to discourage burglaries and even violence.
Healdsburg would become the second city in Sonoma County behind Sebastopol to set rules for growing medical marijuana. But differences between the two towns and their divergent views toward pot was part of the sometimes impassioned discussion at last week’s Healdsburg City Council meeting.
“In Sebastopol, they don’t complain about the smell and in Healdsburg they do. And I’m not sure why,” said Healdsburg Police Chief Kevin Burke.
Is it because of liberal, west county politics where Green Party candidates get more votes, the entire city of Sebastopol is designated a non-nuclear zone, and the top vote-getter in the last City Council election, Robert Jacob, was someone who operates a medical marijuana dispensary?
“Obviously there is a level of comfort here with medical marijuana that resulted in the electoral result,” Sebastopol Police Chief Jeff Weaver said Thursday.
But he said there could be various reasons for the few complaints or problems associated with marijuana growing in Sebastopol, which allows up to 30 plants in gardens that can cover as much as 100 square feet.
“I don’t know if people aren’t growing as much, or maybe they’re more discreet about it, or maybe people are more tolerant about it,” Weaver said.
In response to perennial complaints about backyard marijuana gardens in Healdsburg, Police Chief Burke proposed guidelines that would allow only indoor cultivation, with grow lights. Patients could have up to 12 mature plants and 24 immature ones.
Although California voters approved the use of medical marijuana in 1996, no standards were set on the numbers of plants or the amount of marijuana patients could possess and it has remained a murky issue.
The state, cities and counties have come up with different limits. But the state Supreme Court in 2010 in essence said the limits can be exceeded and patients can possess and cultivate as much as is “reasonably necessary” for their medical needs.
The Healdsburg Planning Commission unanimously endorsed the proposed cultivation ordinance, adding an air filter requirement in the home to keep the telltale plant odor from being detected by neighborhood children, or others tempted to steal the crop.
But after the proposal received publicity, marijuana advocates showed up in force at Monday’s City Council public hearing to express their objections.
Some of those critical of Healdsburg’s plans to prohibit outdoor gardens, or urging the City Council to study the issue further, included Sebastopol vice-mayor Jacob, executive director of the Peace in Medicine cannabis dispensary; former Sebastopol City Council members Craig Litwin and Linda Kelley; and former West County Supervisor Ernie Carpenter.
Many speakers urged Healdsburg officials to pass more liberal guidelines like those in Sebastopol and unincorporated parts of Sonoma County.
Jacob noted that his dispensaries have 36,750 registered patients in Sonoma County and 1,147 of them in the past five years have been from Healdsburg, which prohibits dispensaries, like most cities in the county.
But Healdsburg Councilman Shaun McCaffery said Healdsburg is different from Sebastopol and needs to craft its own ordinance. “People think differently in these two towns,” he said.
With a slight hint of sarcasm, Healdsburg Councilman Gary Plass said he wanted to “thank all the speakers and everybody who gave their time to drive all the way from Sebastopol.”
Plass added that the city was not trying to limit people who need medical marijuana, but was talking about putting the plants indoors to avoid the odor issue.
But being forced to grow indoors is a significant expense, especially for low-income patients who need it, according to critics.
“It forces people to pay for sunlight indoors, instead of using it for free outdoors,” said former Sebastopol City Councilman Litwin.
“Why are people complaining about the smell?” said Martin Lee, a medical marijuana patient who lives in winery-studded Dry Creek Valley.
“I live near a winery. When it’s harvest time, you smell the vinegar everywhere. I find that a lot more obnoxious than the smell of a marijuana plant,” he said, arguing that the plant has medicinal terpenes that some people find pleasant. He said it only gives off an aroma as it begins to bud around mid-August, heading toward the fall harvest.
Lee, who has written a book on the social history of cannabis, said there is still a lot of prejudice, a “bigotry about the evil weed.”
“People have been taught to hate marijuana and to fear it,” he said.
But Joe Lickey, a Healdsburg resident, said he neither hates marijuana nor is afraid of it. He said his 6-year-old child did not want to play outside of their Prince Street home because of the smell from a neighbor’s pot plants.
Lickey said people who need it should be able to get it at little or no cost. But he expressed objections to those who bend the rules to become medical marijuana patients, grow it in the backyard for profit, and attract thieves to steal it.
After more than 90 minutes of discussion, Healdsburg City Council members decided they needed more information and agreed to form a task force to come up with recommendations.
The tentative timeline is to come back to the City Council in late September or October, coincidentally just about the time of harvest.
You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or firstname.lastname@example.org.