The City of Sonora has a plan in motion to determine how it will handle commercial marijuana businesses before the state begins issuing licenses Jan. 1, while a corresponding effort by Tuolumne County has yet to move beyond discussions on cultivation for personal use.
A working group recently formed by the Sonora City Council met for the first time Wednesday evening and developed a timeline for tackling hot-button issues like whether to permit storefronts that sell marijuana, deliveries, as well as manufacturing and testing facilities.
After two meetings held over the past three months, the county’s working group formed in February has yet to address the issue of regulations on a commercial cannabis industry because the Board of Supervisors originally gave direction only to consider personal cultivation.
Advocates say time for the county to shift focus is running out, but there’s hope that a recently hired third-party consultant will help to speed up the process.
At a June 6 meeting, the board approved a contract worth up to $22,500 for the Fairfield-based SCI Consulting Group to facilitate the county working group’s work. Several supervisors at the time expressed their support for expanding the group’s focus to regulations for commercial cannabis businesses as well.
“We need to face reality and move forward,” said District 2 Supervisor Randy Hanvelt. “We need a yay or nay on virtually aspect... It’s coming with or without us, and we need to make sure that it’s done right.”
The group’s next meeting is scheduled for 8 a.m. July 10.
Kira Tucker, executive director of the Tuolumne Cannabis Alliance, serves on both the city’s and county’s working groups as a representative of the potential cannabis industry. She has yet to receive an agenda for the next meeting but hopes the scope will expand to the commercial side of the discussion.
District 1 Supervisor Sherri Brennan, District 3 Supervisor Evan Royce, retired Sonora-area California Highway Patrol Commander Scott Clamp, and Groveland-area Planning Commissioner Jerry Baker also serve on the county’s working group.
The board passed an ordinance in February 2016 allowing people with valid prescriptions to grow up to 12 or 24 medical marijuana plants on their property, depending on the number of residents with prescriptions, in the unincorporated area for the first time in county history.
In the fall of 2015, the state Legislature passed the first official regulations on the medical cannabis industry since California voters approved the drug for medicinal use in 1996. That was somewhat thrown into flux a year later when voters approved Proposition 64 allowing recreational use and sales of marijuana by people over 21.
Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation this week called Senate Bill 94 aimed at integrating medical and recreational cannabis laws and allowing people over 21 to possess up to an ounce and grow up to six plants for personal use, regardless of whether it’s for treating an ailment or just to get high.
David Gonzalves, director of the county’s Community Resources Agency, said they have to make certain whether the new law replaces the county’s ordinance on medical-marijuana growers, though he expects the working group will begin shifting focus to commercial activity at the next meeting.
“The board’s intention was for people who use it for medical reasons to be able to do that — and they were very lenient with their recommendation — then shift to commercial,” Gonzalves said. “I anticipate that to happen at the next meeting.”
Meanwhile, the city’s working group set forth a clear plan Wednesday to have an ordinance ready for the council’s consideration by early November. Whether that will be an all-out ban on commercial cannabis businesses or regulations allowing such businesses to operate is still to be determined.
The state will begin issuing licenses for marijuana businesses as of Jan. 1 next year, but the law leaves the door open for cities and counties to ban commercial activity.
Cities and counties have until the Jan. 1 deadline to enact local regulations allowing commercial activity if they want to be eligible for state funding from future cannabis tax revenues that could be used on enforcement, education and drug-use prevention.
Those that choose to ban commercial cannabis activity would not be eligible for the funding, according to City of Sonora legal advisors at Wednesday’s meeting.
Pro-cannabis activists in the area have long advocated for leaders to allow at least two dispensaries that sell the drug within the roughly three-square-mile city limits. Many have said people with prescriptions for medical marijuana have been forced to travel far and wide to dispensaries outside of the area, taking their money along with them.
State taxes on cannabis businesses will include a 7.25 percent tax on retail sales for recreational use, 15 percent excise tax on gross receipts of business income, and a cultivation tax of $9.25 per ounce for flowers and $2.75 per ounce for leaves.
Cities and counties may also adopt local excise taxes, but that must be approved by voters in the given area.
Sonora City Administrator Tim Miller seemed resistant to the idea of holding a special election over the issue and said it would cost in the range of $10,000. Tucker said the future revenues off marijuana would likely more than cover the costs if the city allows commercial storefronts.
“How many tax dollars are we missing out on if we wait six or nine months?” Tucker said in an interview after the meeting. “You have to spend money to make money.”
The city’s working group plans to meet every other Wednesday through Oct. 4 to continue the deliberations.
City staff is working with City Attorney Douglas White’s team to prepare a zoning map that will show all of the places where such businesses could be located, which could be limited given the city’s relatively small size and state laws requiring such businesses to be at least 600 feet away from any school or place where children congregate.
Tucker said she knows of people already leasing space within the city in hopes they will be allowed to open a marijuana business there in the near future.
The city’s working group, which consists of Tucker, Mayor Connie Williams, Councilman Matt Hawkins, resident Harry Ohls, and Acting Sonora Police Chief Turu VanderWiel, is scheduled to meet next at 5 p.m. July 12.
Williams said she doesn’t yet have an opinion either way when it comes to banning or regulating commercial marijuana businesses in the city.
“I just want to make sure we create an ordinance that protects and takes all city residents into consideration,” Williams said. “We’ve already hashed out a lot of stuff, and now we’re down to what will be best for our city.”
Contact Alex MacLean at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 588-4530.