Striking a proper balance on county cannabis rules


If legalizing cannabis was a simple matter, Proposition 64 could have been written in a lot less than 62 pages of small type.

But personal possession and use of marijuana have been effectively decriminalized in California for many years, and the primary purpose of the 2016 initiative was to turn a black-market enterprise into a commercial business.

Even at 30,415 words, Proposition 64 left some tough choices to local governments, including whether to authorize commercial marijuana farming in Sonoma County’s unincorporated neighborhoods.

We chose the word “authorize” because cannabis gardens of varying size already exist in many rural residential areas, often without proper permits. Some neighbors object to the skunky odor and, having witnessed violent home invasions, fear for their safety.

Finding common ground won’t be easy, but revisions to Sonoma County’s cannabis ordinance slated for consideration today by the Board of Supervisors would be a good first step.

Under the revised rules, growers would be required to:

— Obtain a use permit for cultivation on properties smaller than 10 acres in nonindustrial zones. The process includes notifying neighbors, environmental review and public hearings.

— Obtain a zoning permit for larger properties. These permits are easier to obtain, but approvals could be appealed to the county Board of Zoning Adjustments.

— Live on-site during cultivation in residential areas.

Neighborhoods could seek a special zoning designation prohibiting cannabis farming, an approach the board took with vacation rentals.

The proposal also offers added flexibility for growers, including:

— Authorizing cultivation permits for 651 parcels zoned rural residential or agricultural residential where cannabis farming isn’t presently allowed.

— Extending the life of cannabis use permits from one year to five and the life of cannabis zoning permits from one year to two.

— Allowing permits to be transferred to a new owner.

Neither side is entirely satisfied with this proposal, but both sides stand to gain. And the county plans to continue its review of cannabis regulations, so further adjustment are possible.

From our perspective, the top priority is public safety.

A thriving black market remains almost two years after voters approved Proposition 64, as evidenced by a series of violent home invasions in Sonoma County earlier this year and the recent kidnapping and killing of a Cloverdale man, which investigators attribute to marijuana dealing.

Rogue cannabis farms also pose a threat to water supplies and wildlife habitat.

Growers who come out of the shadows should be less likely to cause environmental damage, and they may be more likely to take advantage of offers from the Sheriff’s Office to consult on safety and security measures. The permitting process, in turn, would give residents assurance that growers are operating with county oversight.

By some estimates, there are 5,000 marijuana growers in Sonoma County, but fewer than 180 had applied for permits through mid-July. That’s a lot of room for improvement.

We opposed Proposition 64, but voters approved it by a substantial margin, so there’s little to be gained from continuing to debate the wisdom of legalizing marijuana. It makes more sense to focus on eradicating the black market. Striking a balance between the commercial interests of legal growers and the property rights of their neighbors is a good place to start.











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