Pot clubs OK'd in urban areas

January 29, 2007

Bleys W. Rose, Santa Rosa Press Democrat

Sonoma County supervisors will allow medical marijuana clubs to locate in urban areas of the unincorporated county, overriding the objections of its top law enforcement officer.

The unanimous vote Tuesday means owners of medical marijuana dispensaries can start applying for use permits if they comply with zoning laws that effectively restrict them to commercial areas of Guerneville, Forestville, Boyes Hot Springs, and outside Santa Rosa City limits in Roseland and along south Santa Rosa Avenue.

In an action that lifts a nearly 2-year moratorium on dispensaries that dole out marijuana to people who produce a prescription for the drug, supervisors said they came down on the side of compassion rather than the law.

"I am going to vote more with my heart than with my brain. I think it is important to get the medication to people that need it," said Supervisor Mike Kerns, a 25-year veteran of the Petaluma police department.

The decision puts Sonoma County's five supervisors at odds with Sheriff Bill Cogbill who warned that the county ordinance would not provide dispensary operators with immunity from prosecution. Sale of certain amounts of marijuana remains a federal law violation, although state law has provided exemptions for pot grown by collectives for medical purposes.

"A change in the zoning law does not preclude me from enforcing the law," Cogbill told supervisors at the beginning of an hourlong public hearing. "They can possess and cultivate it (for medical reasons), but they can not sell it retail. It will not ensure that prosecution of dispensaries will not occur."

After the public hearing, a jubilant crowd of several dozen medical marijuana supporters celebrated, led by a a woman who had identified herself in the public hearing as Donna Frank, head of the North Bay Wellness Cooperative, a club operating on south Santa Rosa Avenue. She declined comment on the supervisors' decision and on the sheriff's position on prosecution.

When visited Tuesday by a Press Democrat reporter and photographer, men who answered the doors at two medical marijuana dispensaries in Guerneville and south of Santa Rosa declined interview requests.

The River Road dispensary in Guerneville, set inside a plain white building and adjoining a Thai restaurant, lacks any outward indication of its existence.

"These guys next to me, I don't have a problem with," said Peter Hackett, who for nine years has owned the neighboring Stumptown Brewery. "They're very discreet. They don't even have a sign up."

Nevertheless, Hackett voiced no objection to the county regulating the dispensary.

"I don't think it's a bad thing for them to be regulated, though," Hackett said. "They regulate alcohol pretty tightly."

County planning department staff will return to supervisors March 20 with a final version of amendments to zoning codes that will permit clubs to operate. Supervisors said they did not want dispensaries to operate within 1,000 feet of a school or playground and did not want to allow on-site consumption of cannabis.

None of the handful of clubs operating in the unincorporated county will be "grandfathered" into existence. Nearly all nine cities in the county have enacted bans on marijuana dispensaries, although Cotati is considering allowing them in commercial areas.

Supervisor Tim Smith said the county would also look for ways to limit the number of dispensaries because "I don't want anyone to have free rein even if the county chooses to allow this."

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