Cannabis farmers, employees protest outside Sonoma County supervisors’ offices

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Sonoma County cannabis growers and their allies gathered by the dozens Friday outside the Board of Supervisors’ office in Santa Rosa to denounce the county’s handling of commercial cannabis regulation and taxation, calling it overly burdensome and costly.

Taxes levied by the county are excessive, growers say, and a slow, convoluted local permitting process has hampered the expansion of their industry since California voters legalized adult-use recreational marijuana in 2016.

Without major changes, growers will be chased off or forced back into the black market, they say.

“They’re overburdening us with unachievable regulations,” said David Drips, a co-owner of cannabis farm Petaluma Hill Farms and co-organizer of Friday’s protest, which drew about 80 people.

Tensions have mounted between farmers and neighbors over safety, water use and other impacts on neighborhoods. The county has agreed to study those impacts in an lengthy environmental report advanced by supervisors in May and likely to take at least a year to complete.

In the meantime, cannabis growers continue to seek and secure approval to open new farms, although not at a pace they’d prefer.

A proposed moratorium seeking to halt one permitting pathway — allowing different farmers to share land — is set to come before the Board of Supervisors on Sept. 21, raising the stakes for growers.

Adopted with the aim to help small farmers, the pathway allows a property owner to lease land to multiple small-scale farmers provided the operations do not exceed the maximum cultivation area allowed under the county’s zoning, according to the county’s website.

Under the county’s current permitting process, commercial growers must get a license from the state and apply for a permit through Permit Sonoma, the county’s planning and building department. The county offers several types of permits, with different levels of scrutiny and public input depending on factors including the size and type of grow.

Those growers who undergo the highest level of scrutiny have to go before the Board of Zoning Adjustments for approval, with appeals handled by the Board of Supervisors. That permitting process can also require applicants to provide environmental reports and participate in a public hearing.

Neighbors have called for that process to be kept for a larger number of proposed farms. But cannabis growers and their allies say the county should treat marijuana the same as other crops, such as grapes, which are governed by the agricultural commissioner’s office and aren’t subject to as many of the heightened permitting standards.

Leading up to the Board of Supervisors Sept. 21 hearing, Drips said cannabis advocates are planning another protest in the hopes of making their message known.

“This is a legal industry that supplies good jobs, with decent fair paying wages,” Drips said.

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