Marijuana protestors

Protestors against the legalization of recreational marijuana stand in front of City Hall on Monday.

The Sonora City Council unanimously approved an ordinance legalizing recreational cannabis sales in the city limits, rebuking nearly 50 public speakers who opposed the ordinance during a nearly five-hour meeting on Monday night.

"The real reason I intend to vote for this is because it's a legal business," said Mayor Pro-Tem Mark Plummer. "We're going to have to live with it." 

Plummer lauded the passion of the many Tuolumne County educators who spoke in opposition of the ordinance, but said a rejection vote would "disenfranchise the majority" of city voters who voted in favor of Proposition 64, the 2016 California proposition which was approved and allowed recreational sales in California.

The proposed ordinance allows up to three recreational-cannabis dispensaries, manufacturing facilities and testing laboratories, and expands the current ordinance that allows for only two of each and for medicinal use only. 

Hazy Bulldog Farms on Mono Way in Sonora is the only medical cannabis business currently in operation in the city.

The ordinance was approved with a stipulation that the council would later negotiate an additional fee for drug diversion and educational funding about cannabis as a part of the development agreements for potential new dispensaries, though the decision was made to not change the language of the actual ordinance and risk restarting the incremental approval process.

Sonora Mayor Matt Hawkins responded to a series of points raised by the opposition from the community, including the vitality of the community, the current availability of cannabis, raising children, financial gain and government transparency.

"My biggest thing is the freedom part of it," he said. "It's not going to be in the historic area of downtown."

Most of the downtown area of Sonora is excluded from the ordinance, meaning cannabis businesses cannot be opened there.  

City Attorney Douglas White also addressed later that Sonora was a party to a lawsuit to reaffirm local control of cannabis sales and limit out-of-county businesses from delivering marijuana within Sonora. 

The public comment period for the ordinance lasted almost three hours, with comments from 60 total speakers that were limited at three minutes each.

The majority of the public speakers were in opposition to the ordinance, many of them identifying themselves as in the fields of education or mental health. A majority of the opposition was focused on the risk posed to increased cannabis use in county youth and the impacts to the future.

"We recognize and are alarmed by the adverse effects of marijuana on the developing brain," said county Superintendent of Schools Cathy Parker, who said approval would add additional pressure on law enforcement, schools and public health. "These are your constituents and they need to be heard.”

Councilwoman Colette Such said she was "sobered" listening to so many educators speak on the topic.

"I'm actually struggling with this vote," she said.

Such added that the additional tax on recreational sales would be instrumental in increasing revenue to the city, but noted her approval would be contingent on a "firm commitment" that some of the additional revenue would be used for educational purposes on keeping children away from cannabis use. 

In the end, Such voted in favor of the ordinance with what she described as "great hesitation.” 

Councilwoman Ann Segerstrom requested information from City Administrator Mary Rose Rutikanga about how the city would manage its budget obligations in the wake of the coronavirus crisis, noting the need for a "pretty instantaneous revenue source."

Rutikanga presented the current budget situation as somewhat dire, noting that small, incremental increases in annual revenues had stagnated and were largely diminished during the crisis. She said the medical marijuana industry in Sonora appeared to still be thriving despite an almost universal downturn elsewhere.

Councilman Jim Garaventa said a regulated market would act as a better "deterrent" for keeping cannabis products from children.

Rutikanga said sales tax collected by the state through Proposition 64 funnelled some funding for education, though Such said she wanted funds at the local level. 

Most of the councilmembers gave verbal commitments to the addition, though some cautioned an immediate rewriting of the ordinance would restart the process of approval.

Just following the ordinance approval, the city approved an approximately $2,500 donation from Hazy Bulldog Farms to the budget of the Sonora Police Department, generating a flurry of accusations of impropriety from many of those that had just previously spoken in opposition.

"You guys are bought: hook, line and sinker here," said County Supervisor Anaiah Kirk. "This is ridiculous. This is so untransparent. Nobody takes a vote on a promise for something in the future."

Hawkins accused Kirk of making erroneous accusations and called for a public apology. 

"Nobody can buy me," Hawkins said. "I can expect a meeting with you real soon so we can go through my bank account… You should probably pray a little bit more tonight." 

Some speakers accused the council of a conflict of interest in approving the donation, including William Sarkisian, a teacher at Sonora High School, questioned the "optics" of the decision and said "where there's smoke there's fire."

Jeff Muzio, owner of Hazy Bulldog Farms, said he decided to make the contribution following the previous meeting when the council made their first unanimous approval and discussed donations to groups that educate children on the dangers of cannabis use.

It was previously identified that the donation was 1 percent of the annual revenue of Hazy Bulldog. 

"I was excited and I went down and donated to a program that the police have in the schools," Muzio said. "All this other kind of stuff shows the sky is falling for these people. They're just extremists."

Anaiah Kirk's brother, Mel Kirk, was the first to speak in opposition and said he would "quadruple that donation right now on behalf of the kids of Tuolumne County." 

Another woman who identified herself as Christine Cacciari said she would also match the donation.

Garaventa said he acknowledged he had "mixed emotions" in the way the approval of the donation was presented, noting that it may instigate suspicion from the community.

Rutikanga and White said the donation was made on top of the monthly contribution already made to the city as a part of Hazy Bulldog's operating agreement. 

The approval passed 4-1, with an abstention from Segerstrom.

There were a few proponents of recreational use during public comment, including County Supervisor-elect Jaron Brandon.

"I'm not here to push and to lobby, but just to offer a perspective," he said. "In most markets, prohibition and trying to block it has been very ineffective.

Another speaker who identified himself as county resident Alex Carney said he recently began to use medical cannabis once-a-month to deal with depression, but without a medical recommendation. He leaves the county to purchase his product.

"Personally, I think we should keep all the money within the county," he said. "From my understanding, we desperately need it." 

Prior to the meeting, more than 30 opponents to the ordinance convened for a demonstration outside of City Hall. Many of the participants in the demonstration later appeared to make public statements during the meeting.

Hawkins said he received a text message from one member of the public who threatened to launch a recall effort if the council chose to approve the ordinance. 

Participants in the meeting included city Police Chief Turu VanderWiel, former County Supervisor candidate Dameion Renault, Sonora social equity committee member Darren Duez, County Supervisor-elect David Goldemberg, County Board of Education member Juliana Feriani, and former County Supervisor Randy Hanvelt.

Over 130 people were participating in the meeting.

Last week, the council voted unanimously to approve the ordinance during their first of two scheduled meetings on the topic. 

Cannabis businesses must pay $10,000 or 10% of their revenue to the city per month, whichever is greater, under the medicinal ordinance. State law doesn’t allow the city to charge a sales tax on medicinal cannabis, but it could do so for recreational transactions. 

The city currently receives roughly $150,000 a year from Hazy Bulldog Farms, the only medical dispensary that’s currently operational. 

The new ordinance will go into effect sometime in December.

Before the public comment period, the council discussed whether an 18-year-old could operate a cannabis business or work at one. The city ordinance appeared to allow it, though state law restricts people from being under the age of 21 to possess it or consume it.

White also noted the council had the ability to evaluate and approve owners of businesses despite their age.

Segerstrom also presented her opposition to the demonstration that preceded the meeting in light of the mounting coronavirus crisis in the county. 

"I wish that the concern for stopping the spread of COVID was half as ardent as the opposition to recreational cannabis," she said. "This all could have not even existed if everyone had just decided it was a good reason to mask up and wash their hands."

Jerry Fuccillo, former city engineer, said it was the “longest city council meeting I’ve ever been to in 41 years." 

A full story on the anti-recreational cannabis demonstration will be available in the print edition on Tuesday. A full story on the Nov. 16 city council meeting and the approval of recreational cannabis will be available in the print edition on Wednesday. 

Contact Giuseppe Ricapito at gricapito@uniondemocrat.net or (209) 588-4526.