The Times They Are A Changin’ – Surprise Victory for Medical Marijuana Patients in Petaluma

mmj leaf

A proposed ban on all outdoor medicinal cannabis grows within Petaluma city limits has been unceremoniously rejected by the Petaluma City Council, which called for city staff to come back with a modified proposal that is, according to Councilmember Teresa Barrett, “more compassionate, and a little less draconian.”

The outcome appears to have taken both the Petaluma Police Department (PPD), which helped draft the ordinance, and the local newspaper monopoly by surprise.

It’s not clear if the PPD had not previously heard from medicinal cannabis patients and advocates in sufficient quantities, as it gathered public commentary on the proposed ordinance, or if it had not previously listened to them.

They were heard at the council’s November 16 meeting, however. Speaker after speaker stepped up to the microphone to encourage the council to allow for some outdoor growing of cannabis for growers’ own use, and the councilmembers did hear their pleas. Ultimately Councilmember Kathy Miller was the sole supporter of the PPD’s proposal as written.

Petaluma has not permitted the establishment of medical marijuana dispensaries within city limits since 2007, so an absolute ban on outdoor growing would have further limited access to what members of the public repeatedly referred to as an essential medication.

The cities of Sebastopol and Healdburg have in recent years enacted new medical marijuana regulations that were frequently discussed during the course of this meeting. Both allow for outdoor growing. Sebastopol’s allows 100 square feet of growing space, Healdsburg allows for three plants. Neither city has reported any cannabis-related crime since the ordinances were put into place, reported the PPD.

The PPD, councilmembers, cannabis advocates, patients and proponents of a ban appeared to find some common ground however, agreeing that large commercial grows should be regulated, with some on the dais expressing surprise at the size of mature plants and the scale of one east side Petaluma, backyard grow that was estimated to be around 4,000 square feet.

Clint Mason, the neighbor of that particular grow, called the skunk-like stench which emanates from next door “unbearable” for two months out of each of the past five years, and pleaded with the Council to provide the regulations necessary to help residents out. Current city regulations do not allow the PPD to do anything to assist neighbors bothered by the overpowering aroma of an otherwise legal marijuana operation.

In his presentation to the Council, PPD Lt. Ken Savano noted that at least one resident had commented at a public forum that they moved to the Petaluma KOA campground for three months of each year to escape a neighbor’s excessively aromatic cannabis crop.

Police Chief Patrick Williams appeared surprised by the many public speakers opposed to the outdoor ban, suggesting that an overwhelming majority of the public he’d heard from previously disagreed.

“In the twenty five plus town hall meetings we’ve held, with anywhere from thirty people to three hundred people, there isn’t one meeting that doesn’t go by where we’re getting three-fold [the] feedback that you’ve heard tonight to the contrary of the experiences of those in this room.”

From the PPD’s perspective, with this ordinance “we have a structure that allows access,” said Williams.

“Quite frankly we’re not even talking about the issue related to mobile delivery,” which also provides access to marijuana for patients.

Public commentary at this meeting sharply diverged from that assessment, noting the expense both of purchasing cannabis at dispensaries and of establishing indoor grow rooms. Cannabis delivery services typically charge prices comparable to dispensaries.

Medicinal cannabis user and Petaluma homeowner Linda Stokely spoke of spending $2,000 to set up a grow room and a $600 per month utility bill, only to have crops repeatedly fail due to pests common to indoor growing. Yet medicinal marijuana was essential to her quality of life and had successfully replaced three prescription pharmaceuticals she previously needed. An outdoor ban, she argued, would unnecessarily prevent her and other patients who need the medication from obtaining it.

Stokely and several other citizens who commented noted that, as older residents, they had both financial constraints and health issues that would be exacerbated if the outdoor ban were enacted. The Council appeared to be swayed by their pleas, with the exception of Councilmember Miller.

Petaluma resident, small business owner, and medical cannabis patient Charles Cowles argued that at $400 an ounce, the marijuana sold at dispensaries is nowhere near affordable, nor was indoor growing.

Kumari Sevadas of Sonoma Alliance for Medical Marijuana (SAMM) said “The reality is, I would say for the majority of medical marijuana patients, an indoor grow is not an option.”

“The costs of setting up a grow are very expensive. The costs of maintaining an indoor grow are very expensive.”

There is also considerable technical skill required, she continued, or you have to hire help.

On the other hand, if you’re growing outdoors the sun is free. It’s easy. You just put some seeds or clones in the ground and you can have plants. They’re easy to grow. People say it grows like a weed.  

There are many responsible growers who have been growing outside in their Petaluma backyards for years and have had no problems that I know of.

The thing is too, if you pass this ordinance these people that have been depending on this medicine that they grow themselves, they’re going to continue to grow, and that means a whole new set of problems for your law enforcement.

Sevadas pointed out that “large commercial grows are unregulated, and cannabis plants should not be visible. They should not be smelly to neighbors, if they were regulated. If outdoor grows were regulated rather than banned, the city could come in and determine if a grow was compliant.”
“Please consider regulating them rather than banning them.”

Councilmember Mike Healy noted that he had met with medical marijuana advocates at their request, and had learned some significant information about Sebastopol’s medical marijuana ordinance that may be worthwhile considering for Petaluma. 

“The medical cannabis cultivation and processing area shall not adversely affect the health or safety of the nearby residents including odor,” so it seems to me that’s a safe harbor if we were to consider maybe the Healdsburg three plant limit outdoor, that you have to do it in such a way that it doesn’t bother your neighbors and if you have sensitive neighbors that’s your problem, not theirs.

Mayor David Glass was unclear how outdoor grows should be regulated – by square footage or number of plants. After attending a recent meeting about state regulations that will go into effect in March 2016, however, he was certain that Petaluma needed to have its ordinance in place prior to that time, or the city would find itself governed by more permissive California regulations on outdoor growing.

Councilmember Healy noted that the Sebastopol language puts the onus on growers to fit in with their neighbors.

Mr. Mason was kind enough to provide us with photographs of what he can see over his back fence – this 4,000 square foot grow of plants that look like small Christmas trees, and you can certainly see why that would be an impact on the neighborhood, but if someone had three plants with a maximum area of 100 square feet – three mature plants, I should say – subject to the Sebastopol requirements that it not bother the neighbors and not be visible from a public right of way, I still think that would be enough.

“Quite frankly, with the Sebastopol language, if it presents a problem to the neighbors, then that’s not okay. So it’s really on the person growing it to do it in such a way that it doesn’t bother the neighbors,” concluded Healy.

Councilmember Chris Albertson, a former Fire Chief in Petaluma and Santa Barbara, noted that he distrusted indoor cannabis growing due to fire safety concerns, and expressed further concerns about limiting patients’ access to the medicine.

“I don’t want to deprive anyone of medicine that will relieve suffering where conventional pharmaceuticals isn’t doing the job, or there’s additional side effects to those pharmaceuticals.”

Councilmember Teresa Barrett called the proposed ordinance “wrong on a lot of fronts,” but in particular “the philosophy behind it I think is what is wrong.”

I think there are a few bad actors that the police are having problems with that people have been complaining about who are not the people who have been represented here tonight, and I think it’s interesting that people on both sides of this issue said that they know people who are afraid to come and talk about this, that they’re intimidated. The users are intimidated and the people who live next door to the bad actors are intimidated.

“I think the makers of this ordinance totally misjudged how expensive growing inside would be for people, and part of why people grow it at home is because they can’t afford $400 an ounce.”

“I think it has to be more compassionate a little less draconian,” said Barrett.

Look for the Petaluma City Council to discuss a revised medical marijuana ordinance at a January 2016 meeting.

 

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