The California Cannabis Countdown: Sonoma County

California cannabisUntil recently, the “Wild West” of U.S. cannabis lacked robust statewide regulations which left California cannabis companies subject to unclear rules and risk of federal shutdowns. The Medical Marijuana Regulation and Safety Act (MMRSA) created these regulations, but ultimately left control in the hands of local cities and counties. At last count, California has 58 counties and 482 incorporated cities across the state, each with the option to create its own rules or ban marijuana altogether. In this California Cannabis Countdown series, we plan to cover who is banning, who is waiting, and who is embracing the change to legalize marijuana — permits, regulations, taxes and all. For each city and county, we’ll discuss its location, history with cannabis, current law, and proposed law to give you a clearer picture of where to locate your cannabis business, how to keep it legal, and what you will and won’t be allowed to do. Our last California Cannabis Countdown post was on the City of Sacramento, and before that, the City of BerkeleyCalaveras CountyMonterey County and the City of Emeryville.

Welcome to the California Cannabis Countdown.

Sonoma County is a remarkable location in California for cannabis cultivation, with its rich agricultural setting and generous possession and cultivation limits. However, until recently, the County only issued permits for dispensaries which do not allow for onsite cultivation, consumption, or delivery. The County is now in the beginning stages of drafting a comprehensive marijuana ordinance which will include not only commercial cultivation, but manufacturing, testing, distribution, transportation, and delivery as well.

Location. Sonoma County has a long history as one of the most agriculturally productive counties in the United States. This is largely due to its available, fertile land combined with an abundance of high quality irrigation water. Sonoma County is the largest producer of California’s Wine Country region and is home to over 250 wineries. Its wine industry also brings in millions of tourists each year which makes up a big part of the County’s local economy.

Sonoma County’s History with CannabisOn May 17, 2005, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors passed an urgency ordinance to place a temporary ban on new medical marijuana dispensaries due to the pending opening of new dispensaries within the County and to give itself time to create an appropriate permitting and land use policy for regulating marijuana within its boundaries. The Board later voted twice to extend the moratorium on new dispensaries, on June 21, 2005, and again on May 5, 2006.

On September 26, 2006, the Board enacted Resolution No. 06-0846, which created guidelines for the possession and cultivation of medical marijuana by qualified patients and primary caregivers, as authorized by state law.

On March 20, 2007, the Board repealed its temporary ban on new dispensaries and passed Ordinance 5715 in order to amend the Sonoma County code and establish use permit requirements and operational standards for medical cannabis dispensaries.

On February 7, 2012, the Board adopted Ordinance 5967, amending the zoning code to limit the total number of medical cannabis dispensaries in Sonoma County to nine.

Following the passage of the MMRSA in California, on January 5, 2016, Sonoma County created the Medical Marijuana Ad Hoc Committee to develop and bring forward recommendations for comprehensive cannabis regulations consistent with the new state laws.

On February 2, 2016, the Board passed a resolution directing staff to develop new zoning regulations to permit marijuana cultivation, storage, distribution, deliveries, and manufacturing within Sonoma County.

Sonoma County’s Current Cannabis LawsUnder Section 26-88-126, medical cannabis dispensaries operating in Sonoma County are required to apply for and obtain use permits. Use permits are issued to medical cannabis dispensaries for a maximum term of one year and expire upon the sale or transfer of ownership of the dispensary by the original permit applicant. Medical cannabis dispensaries include collectives of 4 persons or more and are divided into two categories.

A Level 1 Medical Cannabis Dispensary is defined as a dispensary of not more than 1,000 square feet, which has less than 300 patients, where no more than 20 patients per business day are served.  Level 1 dispensaries must be located in C1, C2 and LC zoning districts. The operating days and hours of Level 1 dispensaries are generally limited to Monday through Saturday from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.

A Level 2 Medical Cannabis Dispensary is defined as a dispensary which has over 299 patients, and/or which is located in a facility of greater than 1,000 square feet, and/or which serves more than 20 patients per business day. Level 2 dispensaries must be located within designated Urban Service Areas in C2 or LC zoning districts. The operating days and hours of Level 2 dispensaries are generally limited to Monday through Saturday from 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. Level 2 dispensaries are also subject to higher parking requirements than Level 1 dispensaries.

Both Level 1 and Level 2 medical cannabis dispensaries are subject to applicable building codes and accessibility requirements, minimum development and operational standards, and location requirements within the County.  Medical cannabis dispensaries are not permitted:

  1. within 100 feet of residential zones;
  2. within 1,000 feet of any other dispensary, nor within 500 feet from a smoke shop or similar facility selling drug paraphernalia; and
  3. within 1,000 feet from any public school, park, or any establishment that primarily serves people under 18.

In addition, medical cannabis dispensaries may not allow onsite cultivation, onsite consumption, or delivery of cannabis.

Sonoma County’s Proposed Cannabis LawsThere are currently no Sonoma County ordinances or zoning code regulations that address possession or cultivation and commercial cultivation is not allowed. Under Resolution No. 06-0846, which the Board passed in 2006, qualified patients and primary caregivers in Sonoma County can establish a defense to prosecution for possession of up to 3 pounds of dried marijuana and cultivation up to 30 plants within 100 square feet of canopy per patient. The limits set by Sonoma County at this time were well above the state default possession and cultivation limits of 8 ounces of dried marijuana and 6 mature plants or 12 immature plants per patient, respectively.

These 2006 limits continue to apply to collectives operating in Sonoma County on a per patient basis.  However, under the direction of the Board earlier this year, the Sonoma County Permit and Resource Management Department (PRMD) is currently working to draft a marijuana land use ordinance, which will create a permitting scheme for cannabis-related land uses including cultivation, labs and testing, distribution, transportation, deliveries, manufacturing and dispensaries. The project has a projected timeline of 9 months and is expected to conclude early next year. A full work plan and timeline for the marijuana land use ordinance is available at the Sonoma County website.

The year is a key time to get involved locally in Sonoma County. The County is conducting community outreach and meeting with key stakeholder groups as it develops its new marijuana regulations. With several license types being considered in anticipation of state licensing, Sonoma County is primed to be a licensing cornucopia in 2017.