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Repeal of medical marijuana guidelines rejected by Sonoma County supervisors

Medical marijuana supporters show their support for a speaker Tuesday during the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors meeting.

Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat
Published: Tuesday, December 11, 2012 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, December 12, 2012 at 2:20 p.m.

Two members of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors failed to push through a proposal to repeal the county's guidelines on medical marijuana cultivation and possession.

After listening for nearly two hours to medical marijuana lawyers, patients and advocates lambast the lack of outreach on the repeal effort, the board voted 5-0 to set it aside.

The hearing was the last for Supervisor Valerie Brown, who with Board Chairwoman Shirlee Zane led an ad hoc committee that crafted the proposal to change the guidelines, in place since 2006, to reduce the permissible amounts.

Brown, after the impassioned and at times rowdy hearing, gave an emotional apology.

“I just flat out failed you and I'm sorry,” said Brown. “I want to thank all of you for coming forward — the majority of you I agree with.”

But the supervisors voted to move forward with two additional proposals made by Brown and Zane. They agreed to have the committee craft an ordinance that would prohibit the use of unoccupied residential buildings to grow marijuana.

They also voted to establish a “working group” to help the county shape its medical marijuana policies that would include patients, law enforcement and a wide range of people involved in the issue.

The board's 2006 resolution permits patients to have 30 plants or 100-square-feet of cultivation space and 3 pounds of dried pot per year.

Brown and Zane said they set out to revise the county's guidelines to address a spike in pot-fueled crime. They suggested adopting the state guidelines, which permit patients to have six mature plants or 12 immature plants and 8 ounces of dried pot.

Physicians can recommend marijuana in amounts beyond state and county guidelines.

The more than two-hour-long hearing came before a packed audience that spilled into the hallway with rows of folding chairs set up to accommodate the crowd.

Audience members included noted medical marijuana attorney Omar Figueroa, Sebastopol vice mayor and dispensary founder Robert Jacob, dispensary owners and dozens of medical cannabis patients.

Many in the audience wore pink stickers that read, “Don't Criminalize Patients.”

Brown and Zane tried to reassure a sometimes hissing crowd that they did not intend to make it harder for patients to access medicine.

“We're not talking about a criminal offense where someone is carrying a little bit of dope in their car,” Zane said. “We're talking about real violent crime and real offenses.”

Brown said, “I still believe in the use of medical marijuana that compassionate use is appropriate, real and productive.”

But that message was not heard by many at the hearing.

Supervisor Efren Carrillo led the charge criticizing the process with a statement on Facebook the day before the vote that he was “livid and appalled with the lack of public engagement on this issue between stakeholders and the Board.”

Carrillo took a softer tone at the hearing, and said that although he believed Zane and Brown had good intentions, he had “serious concern” that medical marijuana users weren't consulted.

“Never at any point did we discuss the repeal of the 2006 decision, I don't recall ever having that discussion,” Carrillo said.

Among dozens of speakers one of the primary concerns was that Brown and Zane consulted law enforcement but did not consult medical marijuana patients.

Speakers said that reducing the amount of pot would affect patients fighting illness and pain, do nothing to combat illegal drug trafficking and flood the courthouse with petty pot possession cases.

“If you repeal this ordinance, it will be a relief act for me, there will be chaos in the court system as you've never seen before,” Santa Rosa criminal attorney Chris Andrian.

“Not one person has spoken in support of ad hoc committee,” Tim Ryan, 24, a Santa Rosa Junior College student who said a doctor recommended he use pot to manage pain from compressed vertebrae.

“Noted,” Zane said.

Angie Monette of Sebastopol waved the registration papers she filed earlier in the day to start a committee to oppose the repeal effort called “Citizens for Responsible Access.”

“I've raised about $1,000 an hour since I filed those papers today,” Monette said.

Brown and Zane said they were motivated to combat an image drawing criminals to Sonoma County that it's easy to get away with illegal marijuana cultivation here.

During the hearing, Sheriff Steve Freitas that since 2007 the county has experienced a rise in violent crime associated with marijuana.

“There is a perception, real or not, which is bringing people to Sonoma County, of permissiveness,” Freitas said.

Supervisor David Rabbitt said the board needs to balance fair access for patients with quality-of-life concerns facing neighbors unwillingly surrounded by backyard pot gardens.

“There are people in the county who have a whole separate set of beliefs, those who show up don't necessarily dictate the county,” Rabbitt said.

Also at issue was the proposal to develop a marijuana task force modeled after the county-wide methamphetamine task force.

Many people who walked up to the podium said they were insulted by the comparison.

Supervisor Mike McGuire recommended using the terms “collaborative working group” instead of “task force.”

After the hearing, District Attorney Jill Ravitch said that she was critical of Brown and Zane.

“We could have avoided such a contentious hearing and so many concerned citizens if we had preceded by having a robust conversation,” Ravitch said.

Still, others took a more generous view.

Jacob, who runs the Peace in Medicine dispensary in Sebastopol and was elected this November to the City Council, said that he opposed repealing the 2006 guidelines but felt it was time to discuss them.

Brown “did not fail today,” Jacob said. “She took a very important decision to the next step.”

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 521-5220, julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com or on Twitter @jjpressdem.

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