Growing Pains in Sonoma County Starting to Hurt

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A new coalition of cannabis organizations in Sonoma County are calling on local officials to let cultivators get to work.

 

It’s been four years since California’s voters decided to legalize adult-use cannabis.

Though the bill was passed in 2016, the market didn’t truly kickoff until January 1, 2018. In that time, the state has gone from taking two years to amass $1 billion collected in taxes (a figure which does not include locally imposed taxes) to accomplishing the feat in one calendar year.

That such a year would also occur in the midst of an unprecedented pandemic? It seems like all the more reason to back legal cannabis and reap the rewards. And in cities and counties across California, that’s exactly what’s happened. Unfortunately, for growers in Sonoma County — the NorCal region reputed for its world-class vineyards — the process has been painfully slow.

According to Sam De La Paz, vice-president of Hessel Farmers Grange, back when the process cultivation permitting started, Sonoma County was projecting as many as 8000 initial applicants.

“But only 200 showed up,” he explained, “because within Sonoma County, there was a massive, massive backlash from a small sect of what we call NIMBYs.”

In this case, the term (an acronym for “Not in My Backyard”) specifically refers to Save Our Sonoma Neighborhoods, a citizen advisory group that has fought the ability of local cannabis growers to put plants in the ground.

“They really hindered any progress,” De La Paz continued, “but we haven’t always been incredibly vocal or active politically. I call it crawling out of the canopy. It’s a shadow that we are still very much emerging from, so, unfortunately, what happened is that folks who already had relationships with the wine industry and the Board of Supervisors, who are well-known and respected within the community, they were able to bend ears and push a lot of development restrictions through.”

What does a development restriction actually look like in practice?

De La Paz detailed one ongoing example in which cultivators had already purchased a five-acre parcel of ground, only to see the rules changed in the middle of them closing on the deal to instead require a minimum of ten-acres for cannabis grows. Unable to move the land in time, they may instead not grow next year at all.

Now, with the adult-use market in California less than two weeks away from celebrating its third anniversary, De La Paz has joined an effort to encourage Sonoma’s Board of Supervisors to expedite their permitting process and let local growers get to work.

In a press release announcing the group, dubbed the Sonoma County Cannabis Coalition, the undersigned stressed that if local officials don’t act now, “many growers will be unable to put plants in the ground for the 2021 season,” warning that such a fate would force the area’s manufacturers, distributors, and dispensaries — sectors of the industry that are up and running in Sonoma — to source their flower from outside of the region.

By banding together, the Sonoma County Cannabis Coalition — which currently includes 421 Group, Americans for Safe Access, Cannabis Business Association of Sonoma County, the Hessel Farmers Grange, and the Sonoma County Growers Alliance — hopes to bring awareness to what De La Paz said is ultimately an effort underscored by a desire to affect positive change.

“We have such a large demographic being affected,” he noted, “within an essential industry, in a time when it is very difficult to run any business, and we have a revenue- and job-generating source but we’re lagging behind on a clear pathway to entry — especially for legacy operators. These are folks that may have come from the traditional side of the industry and now they want to come forward and do things right. Instead of chastising them and making it incredibly difficult by throwing red tags and permit violations and code violations, why not offer support?”

The Coalition’s press release offers numbers to compliment De La Paz’s projections.

“If cannabis is allowed to become a mature business in Sonoma County,” it reads in part, “as many as 2,800 jobs may be supported in this industry through all the supply chain connections.”

For Craig Litwin, CEO of 421 Group, which helped form the Sonoma County Cannabis Coalition, one of the most succinct ways to summarize the issue is to survey all that locally-grown Sonoma County cannabis stands to offer the community.

“What has been a long and winding road of cannabis policy development,” Litwin told Bloom & Oil by email, “appears to be culminating in Sonoma County rightfully claiming the limelight as the commercial cannabis hub between the Emerald Triangle and the Bay Area, allowing the industry to create more world-class products similar to other successful local industries.”

With recent events like California officially approving origins of appellation for cannabis, evolving public understanding to eliminate the concept of pot as “other” in relation to mainstay agricultural industries like wine or even dairy remains a hurdle.

However, given the number of hoops local growers have already been asked to jump through, De La Paz isn’t worried about clearing this particular obstacle.

“I think that’s one thing that cannabis does naturally — it connects people,” he observed. “It allows people to sit down and share their perspectives and express some compassion and some empathy for one another. I believe that’s at the root of plant medicine, but at the same time, that’s one thing that we’re really trying to build within the Grange network too: camaraderie between farmers and partners.”

In a touching story, De La Paz shared how folks from the Grange came together to help the owners of Sonoma’s Sweet Creek Farms, which lost $150,000 worth of plants due to wildfires in August. He says within two weeks of mother-daughter Kila and Keala Peterson suffering the damage, they’d already assisted with getting new plants in the ground.

For De La Paz, it speaks to the community that’s formed in the hopes of seeing local cannabis growers finally thrive.

“With the Sonoma County Cannabis Coalition,” he said, “it’s us coming together and using our collective voices, because at the end of the day, we all want the same thing.”

Those interested in expressing support for the Sonoma County Cannabis Coalition are encouraged to sign the group’s petition or post a 30-second video to social media about “why Sonoma County cannabis matters to me” using the hashtags #YESWECANNA and #KEEPSONOMAGREEN

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