The Sonora City Council gave its final approval on May 17 for a planned marijuana dispensary on Calaveras Street to sell recreational cannabis products, over a torrent of opposition from an advocacy group that is pressuring council members to provide a youth educational component about cannabis from the profits provided to the city by a development agreement.
"We've been told because of the way we are doing our regulations in the City of Sonora, this will help stifle, due to the free market, a lot of the marijuana that is being grown or sold in the county illegally," said Sonora Mayor Matt Hawkins. "The free market I think is going to win out on this one."
Hawkins said the owners of the future dispensary at 10 Calaveras St., known as the Bract House, are already paying the city $10,000 a month to maintain their development agreement, though work has been slow to construct the facility, which from the outside appears now not much more than a warehouse.
The Bract House is near the former Tuolumne General Hospital and previously operated as a machine shop and foundry in the early 1900s.
A limited liability company behind the future dispensary has a member named Raphael “Ralph” Calderon, of Valley Springs, who owns several cannabis businesses in Calaveras County and Northern California.
The dispensary would be the second recreational cannabis site in the city. Hawkins said there were many inquiries about a third site, though there were no permit applications submitted as of now.
Hazy Bulldog Farms at 1243 Mono Way is the only operating cannabis dispensary in the city limits at this time. They are poised to move to a new, larger building at 1201 Mono Way sometime in mid-June.
The dispensary began offering recreational sales to adults 21 and older on April 20. It opened in January 2019, at that time only for people with a doctor’s recommendation as part of a three-year pilot program adopted by the Sonora City Council in 2018.
Jeff Muzio, the owner of Hazy Bulldog Farms, said the new site is 3,000 square feet, compared to the current site, which is about 550 square feet.
Since the allowance of recreational sales, Muzio said their member count had "jumped up," and he has been preoccupied with stepping up security standards required by city officials and the police department.
Despite an oftentimes inhospitable public environment to recreational cannabis — evidenced by the May 17 public meeting where many spoke out angrily against it — Muzio said the city has been cooperative and friendly in discussions with him.
The city’s original pilot program allowed for up to two medical-only dispensaries in the city limits, with restrictions on how far they must be located away from sensitive areas such as schools, daycares, parks and churches. Late last year, the council approved changing the rules of the program to allow for recreational sales at up to three cannabis dispensaries within the city.
The council recently modified the community benefit fee, which required dispensary owners to pay $10,000 per month, or 5% of gross sales if they exceed that amount, to 7.5% of sales.
That has ramped up expectations of revenue — previously estimated at about $300,000 by other city officials — to $450,000, said Councilwoman Colette Such.
Muzio estimated he provided between $15,000 to $20,000 per month to the city as a part of the community development fee.
At a recent meeting, the council was unable to agree on how much of the revenues should be set aside for educational programs aimed at discouraging youth from drugs. A proposal to contribute 1% of profits was recently voted down due to some on the council feeling the percentage should be higher.
Such was the only councilmember to vote against the approval of the Bract House sales on May 17, noting to The Union Democrat on Thursday that she is not against recreational marijuana, but that the 1% value was too low. She said the educational percentage could be reagendized with a different amount at a later date.
Muzio said he said he hopes to participate and contribute to an education program regarding responsible adult cannabis use to city youth.
Some of the opposition can be sourced to a group called Sonora Speaks, which on its Facebook page offers videos of the council and calls on community members to speak and present their opposition to recreational cannabis.
Some meeting participants, such as Sonora business owner and county resident Mel Kirk, have made vocal opposition to recreational cannabis over the past year as various issues have been discussed by the council.
Kirk said his cousin, Kaelin Kerr, began using marijuana at 14 and later was addicted to heroin. Kerr died of a heroin overdose at 29 two years ago, he said.
"It led to a life that was ultimately cut way too short," Kirk said. "I hope to save at least one child. There's going to be others. I'm concerned more marijuana and more drugs in our town will affect a certain amount of kids."
At the May 17 meeting, Kirk said he went "off book" and referred to Hawkins as a "liar" because he felt Hawkins would not listen to public opinion.
"If you want to dish it, you better be able to receive it back," Kirk said.
Kirk said he is still pushing for the city to provide for an educational plan for youth about the effects of marijuana use at a young age, noting some council members committed to that early on in the discussion process.
Hawkins described some of the opposition as "rabid," likened it to a "verbal beating" and said many of those against it are not city residents. Hawkins also said he believes the county has a more prevalent substance problem related to alcohol, heroin and methamphetamine.
"The fact is, going with our First Amendment rights, they are guaranteed to speak,” Hawkins said. “I wish they would not be as nasty as they were.”
Contact Giuseppe Ricapito at email@example.com or (209) 588-4526.