An attempt to curb crime in the marijuana industry by reducing medical pot possession and growing was squashed by protesters Tuesday night at the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors' meeting.
Opponents called the effort to repeal Sonoma's 2006 guidelines for medical marijuana "ill-informed" and a "sneaky" attempt to "bypass democracy" due to the lack of stakeholder involvement, though many stated they would generally support any viable way to reduce crime.
The proposal would have modified the County Medical Marijuana Possession and Cultivation Guidelines to revert Sonoma to the more restrictive state health and safety code levels. The state standard allows a patient or caregiver to possess no more than 8 ounces of dried marijuana and grow no more than six mature or 12 immature plants per patient.
Sonoma's guidelines allow a patient or caregiver to possess 3 pounds and grow up to 99 plants within 100 square feet.
The local guidelines were established by the Sonoma County Law Enforcement Chiefs Association and were authorized under the Health and Safety Code after voters statewide approved Proposition 215, the Compassionate Use Act of 1996.
The Health and Safety Code allows counties to establish guidelines that exceed state thresholds.
The suggestion for the Sonoma guidelines repeal came from an ad hoc committee of two Supervisors — 1st District's Valerie Brown and board chair Shirley Zane.
But the committee was called "completely out of touch with reality" by one young speaker from the audience Tuesday night, who noted that only "biased law enforcement sources were used."
Sheriff Steve Freitas and District Attorney Jill Ravitch addressed the board in support of the repeal proposal.
"Arrests and crime related to marijuana have risen since 2006," Freitas said. "There's violence associated around it — simple assaults and assaults with deadly weapons, even homicides. If you look at a map of crime, it peaks in Sonoma County versus the rest of North Bay," he said, showing a slide of the map. "It brings people to Sonoma County, this idea of permissiveness ... the perception. People come from as far away as Texas and Florida for this. Case law says there really isn't a limit, it's based on a doctor's recommendation."
"The idea is to change the perception of Sonoma County to the outside world," Ravitch said. "There is a veil that has been lowered in Sonoma County that people are hiding behind. There is a perception that we have become permissive to illegal growing."
"Rental homes are being used for grows," Brown said. "I've had an issue in my district, with a huge grow. They were growing with an illegal electrical hookup. The fire chief who went out there said the potential for fire was huge in every aspect of that facility. They had a slash of copies of cards and all said they were growing for patients. We found they were not all identifiable cards.
At least 120 people gathered in the audience to hear the discussion; about 30 of them had to stand in the lobby outside the chambers. Nearly 70 people filled out speaker slips and many were able to address the Board in opposition to the repeal before the meeting was called to a close. Approximately 25 people wore bright pink stickers that read: "Don't criminalize patients."
Speakers described themselves as parents, business owners, a retired deputy probation officer, a collective owner, a marijuana grower, a man who said he'd been doing "every drug there is" all his life and had tried an over dose, attorneys, people who said they live with chronic pain and caregivers of cancer patients.
One elderly woman asked the board to create a citizens advisory committee because, "People in Sonoma care." Another woman said "If we get a group of grandmothers together, we can solve the problems of the world."
In the end, the board voted to eliminate the recommendation for repeal and to ask staff to work with the ad hoc committee to engage stakeholders in a collaborative process.
Outgoing 1st District Supervisor Brown said at the end of the meeting that she "never imagined that we would have such a negative response to a discussion."
No one from the audience spoke in support of the repeal attempt. However, Supervisor David Rabbit said, "There are people in the county with other views. The people who show up do not dictate 100 percent of policy."
Brown said she had failed her constituents in not finding a promised solution.
Zane apologized to the audience for using the word methamphetamine in the committee's report language, when it was stated that a marijuana task force similar to a methamphetamine task force would be set up.
Rich Holmer of Villa Grande told Patch, "This is ridiculous that they are basing this on a methamphetamine task force. This is a medicine we're talking about. That's like having an aspirin task force based on a methamphetamine task force. They're trying to force this thing underground." He shared similar thoughts with Supervisors when his turn came to speak.
Zane said she is a former hospital chaplain and said the hospital community doesn't understand pain management.
"As someone who has had chronic pain for most of my life, I speak from experience," she told the audience.
"But there are bad actors. We're talking about real violent crime. I did do a raid with the narcotics officers from our sheriff's department. And I was shocked to see the amount of weapons, amount of gas, amount of toxic chemicals being poured into our watershed, amount of child endangerment issues."
A staff report indicated Sonoma County teenagers show higher use than state or national averages and that a young age of marijuana use reduces educational achievements later in life.
"This hearing is not an effort to vilify legitimate use or supply of medical marijuana," Zane said. "I support the lifting of the federal and state prohibition. Local governments are forced to deal with these impacts...from the inconsistency."
However, several speakers accused Zane and Brown of circumventing the democratic process and "sneakily trying to push this through."
"I do believe there's been a complete lapse by the county," Supervisor Ernest Carillo said, after expressing concern about the lack of stakeholder involvement.
"I've offered my opinions to the ad hoc group," Ravitch said. "I attended one meeting of the committee."
She referenced a shooting at a property where marijuana was grown.
Carrillo asked if a repeal of the ordinance would change that. He also said he didn't believe it would change any cartel involvement.
One resident said she's proud to boast that Sonoma is progressive. She thanked the board for "carrying the progressive flag" and asked them not to put it down.
One woman said she had filed papers to create a group to fight any possession or growing reduction action taken at the meeting and that she had raised about $1,000 an hour since she'd been at the meeting.
Rabbitt said, "We do have a problem and we have to address that. Some people told us, 'Raise the grow limit and you'll have less of a problem. Well we have one of the highest limits and we still have a problem. It has become part of an underground economy for the North Bay and possibly beyond. My wife is an oncology nurse. If you're dying of a brain tumor, go for it. That's not what this is about. This is about how to police ourselves."
A criminal defense attorney said if the board reduces the possession and growing limits, "it will create chaos in the courts."
A caregiver of cancer patients said at least one of her clients juices fresh marijuana leaves on recommendations of her doctor. "Six plants isn't going to cut it," she said. "She's going to have to go to a collective."
"By reducing access, you hurt patients, not criminals," one speaker said.
"There's no evidence that changing the guidelines will assist in apprehending criminals," another said.
A retired deputy probation officer and cancer survivor told the Board, "The war on drugs has been lost. The only thing that will happen if you bring the number down is that you'll help the criminals."
One grower said he'd hired an attorney to do things legally and developed a community garden. He said he was stigmatized by the Sheriff's Department.
"They kicked in my door. For years I was terrified. We need a liaison so we know how to follow the rules. People don't know how to do that. We need to have better communication between those of us who are trying to do the right thing and ..."
A man originally from New York said he has taken every drug there is.
"I've used heroin, methamphetamine. I nearly died. My two brothers have died. I'm pretty messed up. I'm happy that medical marijuana is here. Keep smoking!" he told the audience as he sat down.
Supervisors Chair Zane said the public comments could go until 6:45 p.m. because Brown needed to catch a flight. The hearing on the issue began after 4 p.m. There were loud complaints from the audience.
Loud applause came after one speaker said, "This is bigger than your plane, Ms. Brown."