By KEVIN McCALLUM
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Santa Rosa is set to relax its restrictions on medical marijuana dispensaries, including removing the 500-patient cap and extending the hours of operation.
The changes the City Council will consider Tuesday are in response to concerns from medical cannabis providers and their patients that the rules in place for the last eight years are overly burdensome.
“Medical cannabis is legal in California, and our rules are really quite restrictive,” said Councilwoman Erin Carlstrom, who served on a subcommittee that unanimously recommended the changes.
In 2005, Santa Rosa was the first city in Sonoma County and one of the first in the state to pass laws governing medical marijuana dispensaries, which began sprouting up statewide after voters passed Proposition 215 in 1996.
Because Santa Rosa was one of the first to act, it did so cautiously. Only two dispensaries were approved, each with a 500-patient limit. A host of other regulations covered hours of operations, signage and proximity to schools and parks.
Collectively, those regulations have had the effect of keeping a lid on medical marijuana sales in the city.
The patient cap has meant that many residents have to go outside the city to make their purchases, an inconvenience for patients and a loss of tax revenue for the city.
“The 500-patient cap is a problem,” said Robert Jacob, executive director of Peace in Medicine dispensary and mayor of Sebastopol. “It doesn’t make much sense.”
Santa Rosa is one of only two cities in the state with a patient cap, the other being Cotati, which has a 1,000-patient limit.
The result is that after the two dispensaries in the city — Peace in Medicine on North Dutton Avenue and Sonoma Patient Group on Cleveland Avenue — make their 500th sale for the month, patients have to go to dispensaries in other cities or to one of several that have sprung up just outside city limits.
That’s a lot of lost revenue for Sonoma Patient Group, which has 7,000 patients, said David McCullick, vice president of the dispensary.
“It’s really tough for us to even break even,” McCullick said.
The cap would be removed under the new rules, with the city retaining the right to limit the number of patients if problems are reported in surrounding neighborhoods or businesses.
The length of dispensary permits would also be increased under the new rules. After an initial one-year permit period, permits would thereafter be valid for two years assuming operations comply with local and state laws.
The allowable hours of operation would also be extended to 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. seven days a week. Hours are currently limited to 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday, and closed on Sundays and state holidays.
Many patients work until after 5 p.m., and Sunday is a popular day for people to get errands done, Jacob said.
The new rules will also allow dispensary workers to use marijuana on the job, but only by ingestion or use of a vaporizer and only outside the view of the public. Smoking will not be allowed. Since dispensary workers are required to be medicinal marijuana patients, preventing them from taking their legal medication would have potentially violated their rights, Carlstrom said.
Another change will be to allow dispensaries to dedicate up to 150 square feet of space to the sale of devices to help patients consume the cannabis they purchase. It makes no sense to sell cannabis to patients but then tell them they need to go to a head shop to buy the rolling papers, pipes or vaporizers needed to administer their medicine, Jacob said.
He doesn’t expect to sell a wide array of devices. “The last thing we want is to have a big bong display case,” Jacob said.
Plenty of restrictions will remain, however. Dispensaries still cannot be located within 500 feet of a youth-oriented facility, such as a day-care, school or park. And while dispensary signs will be allowed to be larger, they still cannot “contain any logos or information that identifies, advertises or lists the specific products or services offered by the dispensary.”
While it may seem odd to prevent a business from advertising its products, Carlstrom said the prohibition shows respect to dispensaries’ neighborhoods and serves to draw a clear distinction with recreational marijuana use.
“I think it reflects a bit of an uneasy truce with medical cannabis,” Carlstrom said. “For now, I think it’s a nice balance.”
(You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or email@example.com. On Twitter @citybeater.)