Free Compliments of our Advertisers
Sonoma County Gazette
Cannabis - How Did We Get Here?

Cannabis - How Did We Get Here?

May 4, 2018


By Alexa Rae Wall

The cannabis story in Sonoma County is a hot ticket item. Communities are being divided, and information - true and false - is spreading through our neighborhoods. So how did we get here? As a cannabis cultivator, advocate, and community member; I’d like to offer my perspective.

Three Markets

First, it’s very important to make a few key distinctions when it comes to the different cannabis markets. “Black market” operators grow illegally and ship their cannabis outside of California, to states where prices are three to four times higher than in California.

Although many families have supported themselves for years in the black market, over time it has also become responsible for the negative aspects of the industry, for example, crime, high water use, and high pesticide use and abuse. Many of these operators have no intention of joining the state licensed marketplace.

Then we have the “grey market,” comprised of self-regulated operators who don’t have a permit, but operate like any other legitimate, tax-paying business. And now, as of January 1, 2018, we have the regulated market. The regulations aim to eliminate black market problems, bring operators into the regulated market, and as a result, increase public safety and economic gains for municipalities and the State.

Economic History - Regulate and Tax - We Win and Lose

No one can deny that cannabis is intricately woven into the fabric of our community. It has been growing in the shadows of Sonoma County for decades. From these shadows came a rush of jobs, cash flow, and culture that has provided not only an economic boost, but longer-term economic stability in our County.   

Cannabis brought positive impacts to Sonoma County and the State, but there were consequences to having an all-cash, self-regulated industry mixed deeply into our communities.

Sonoma County was at a crossroads. It could continue to let the sheriff and code enforcement try to keep black market operations in check, using taxpayer money, or, it could create a heavily regulated system, tax it, and let the bad actors eliminate themselves. Sonoma chose the latter. 

Where are the growers?

We keep hearing that there are 5,000+ cultivators in Sonoma County, but with only 150 applications submitted you can’t help but wonder, where are the growers? How are they surviving and paying their bills?

The answer is that they are right up the street from you. They are the family that grew a small indoor cultivation in their garage, or the nice young couple around the corner that grew alongside their food garden. Or they are the man that kept to himself that lived at the end of the block. They are your neighbors.

For decades, most of our County’s cannabis has been grown in Rural Residential (RR) and Agriculture Residential (AR) land zones, where many homes are. Growers had small gardens abundantly scattered across the county, and oftentimes cannabis served as that second job, that brought in additional income for these folks during economic hardship, a housing crisis, their child’s need for braces, or a better school.

Of course, there were, and still are, bigger farms in this county. But what has truly made Sonoma county special is the craft, family cannabis farmers that produced high-quality medicine for local dispensaries and greater California. Sonoma had something very special. Keyword: had.

However, all of this came to a halt in December of 2016. The Board of Supervisors, with pressure from a surprisingly few neighborhood representatives, decided to remove RR/AR zones from the zoning that would allow very small cottage gardens. This went against the months of work and recommendations of staff and the Planning Commission to allow these very small cultivations in RR/AR. Cottage cultivation is 500 sf, or 25 plants.

In one fell swoop, the vast majority of growers were disqualified from any chance to participate in the regulated market. For many, this was a sudden loss of their livelihoods. Farms all over the County, some that had sustained families for generations, became worthless overnight.  All of the excitement about joining the regulated market turned to devastation and fear.

What Options Did Growers Have?

Some growers began to scramble. Some sold is their property to move somewhere with the right zoning. Some sold their company. Some merged with other growers, and many had to take outside investment money. 

They did not have the option of going to a bank and getting a loan. There is no financial banking support for this industry. So most people were left with a bad choice: but to shut down entirely, or to take money from outside investors, with all the pressures and greatly lowered cash flow that results. Large agricultural properties are very expensive. Industrial properties are not only very limited, they became extremely costly almost overnight - now up to $6.00 per square foot in the county! The permitting process costs tens of thousands of dollars in Sonoma County. Many cultivators took the leap and moved to Diverse Ag (DA) zoned properties, as those were the most flexible and appropriate for cultivation.

Today, we have hundreds, if not thousands, of cultivators on RR/AR who have been disqualified from participating in the market. We have a few hundred who survived this past year under the County’s “Penalty Relief Program,” but who cannot find, let alone afford, compliant properties, and are on the fence about whether to jump into the permitting madness. Then there are those that took the leap of faith, moved to new parcels, followed all the rules and applied for permits, only to find it may not have been worth it after all with the threat of program failure and high costs looming over applicants.

Neighborhood Groups Voice their Concerns

Neighborhood opposition groups have sprung up in the past few months, and some members are running a fairly sophisticated and well-funded anti-”pot” campaign that includes TV, paper and Facebook advertising, and even direct mail flyers with emotionally charged images, scary soundbites, and flat-out scare tactics. It’s hard to tell if the misrepresentations are due to simple lack of information on the part of the group organizers, or whether it’s because spinning the facts serves their purpose; they know that by making certain claims, more people will get angry and scared. Regardless of the motivation, this campaign to demonize the legal outdoor cannabis growers is causing a divide in our County that has never before existed.

Environmental Policies Provide Protection

Many folks who oppose cannabis cultivation are unaware that, to meet the ordinance standards and receive a county permit, cultivators must meet a strict set of regulations. There are size limits, security plans and environmental standards in place. By creating this regulatory framework, the county now has a pathway to control water, energy, safety, and more all while generating much-needed tax dollars for our economy.

They are wary of commercial-sized farms, but don’t know that the laws prohibit any more than a 10,000 sf greenhouse in Ag zones, or that the cap for cultivation on all parcels is one acre. They are concerned about electricity use without even realizing cannabis operations have to be run on 100% renewable energy. They are worried about environmental damage without knowing that we have to submit a plethora of technical reports and have site visits and receive permits from California Department of Fish and Wildlife and other agencies. Water use is of huge concern but they are unaware that our wells have to be metered and we must report water usage to the county and State Water Control Board every year and if we go over our allotted water use our project goes up for review.

Legal Business vs. Black Market

Ultimately, the neighborhood opposition is pointing fingers at the wrong target when they attack farms that are in the permitting process. It’s the bad actors and black market operators that bring crime and are a risk to public safety. Those who have come forward for a permit want to do things the right way; safely, and privately. These are many good operators. We should be supporting them in order to bring this industry into compliance with other legal businesses.

What Happens Now?

Meanwhile, cannabis businesses that economically prop up our communities are moving out of Sonoma County. Businesses that relied on the cannabis industry overtly, such as hardware stores and hydroponic stores, are reporting record declines in sales. Many other businesses that thrived because of the industry - from bookkeepers to accountants to printers to Waldorf schools to local clothing and specialty food shops and restaurants - are losing business, money, and jobs as the cannabis industry slowly unwinds and fades away.

Even if the Supervisors push on with the cannabis plan over the next 6-12 months, the reality is that our program has so far failed Sonoma county farmers. The participation rate is low and I’m not sure this will change if the incentives are not there. Tax dollars aren’t coming in because the county won’t issue permits due to public controversy -- although not even a single public hearing has been scheduled for a project.

Sonoma County needs an economic boost more than ever since the fires, and we are pushing away our primary local cash generator, something that we should be holding dear. Our morale has already taken a hit, with so many residents now angry and misinformed about their cannabis-cultivating neighbors. But now our communities will suffer the consequences as the economy declines and more and more local and cash-supported businesses shut their doors. I wonder how safe we will feel then?

Alexa Rae Wall, CEO Luma California, Chair of Board, Sonoma County Growers Alliance


May 7, 2018
LETTER TO THE EDITOR 5/7/2018: I took out a handkerchief as I read what Alexa Rae Wall had to say. It almost brought me to was quite a fairy tale to me. I have met Alexa and heard her during CAG meetings (Cannabis Advisory Group) which is advising the supervisors...To say that the group is unbalanced ((16 cannabis industry representatives vs. 2 neighborhood representatives) is an understatement and this inbalance is having CAG believing that their word is what the county needs. Her article is well written but filled with some faulty reasoning and inaccuracies...To say that the Board of Supervisors decided to remove RR and AR zones after pressure from “a surprisingly few neighborhood representatives” is inaccurate. What was surprising ????that the BOs removed the areas from pot growing???....or that there was any pressure??? ...or that there were just a few representatives??? Truth is that although 60% of people in the county voted to legalize the USE of pot. It doesn’t mean that those same 60% don’t mind it being grown next door to them. The supervisors heard that the representatives were speaking for the majority. I think the truth is that there was a lot of pressure.......neighbors may have tolerated 25 plants being grown not because they loved it, but that there was no enforcement or that the 25 plants were not all encompassing.....What the cannabis industry is asking is not 25 plants. Please ask Alexa how many plants she is applying to grow. She is correct that the bad name that the industry has gotten is in large part because of illegal grows. I believe that the cannabis industry would be better off trying to help or stop those illegal other words, clean up their own....not point fingers at residents and make them the “bad guys.” What is bad is that currently many residents are subjected to the smelly crop accompanied by tall unsightly walls, noisy cars coming and going on small lanes at all hours of the night, lights shining all night, criminal element causing safety issues...these are documented facts. I do understand the frustration that the growers must be having trying to comply and become legal. They have what I would characterize as a moving target....but that is because I believe that the county marched out the ordinance that has many flaws...the main one to me is that there is no limit to the number of permits they will accept. Why not do what one county has done?....only allow 10 permits and see how things go before allowing a flood of permits. As far as the economy of the county feeling the pressure of lack of permitting. Grow tomatoes while this is being sorted out. Get another job.....probably not as lucrative is the answer. As to whether the county has failed the farmers.....we all need to agree that cannabis is not a usual the county has only failed its cannabis farmers....150+ of them while protecting the rights of the nearly 500,000 residents. Rachel Zierdt

-- thank you for your response to Alexa's article. I wanted a Cannabis industry side to the story since I have published so many articles and OpEds/letters from neighbors of growers. I do believe this will all be sorted out, but that it's not an easy path. Until the Feds legalize this valuable crop, there will be issues no matter what. But the more growers who take the legal path, the better we will all be. ~ Vesta
- Vesta Copestakes
May 7, 2018
LETTER TO EDITOR 5/7/18 #2: have met Alexa at a CAG meeting. She is a convincing representative for the cannabis industry. However, I believe that she takes liberties with her statements in the article you published recently. I Googled Luma California and it says it is "closed". She claims that the growers will have meters on their water supply...but there is no explanation of how this will be controlled and how much water is allowed for how much production...that is a big issue. She told me once that they would be recycling the water usage; but doesn't speak to that in the article. I actually suggested that she write an article for the Gazette explaining how that would work. She states that the California water resource board will be monitoring usage..and that growers will have to report to them about their usage: who will confirm or deny the accuracy of this? Who will pay for all of this oversight? I don't see that they are paying for the water, so I seriously doubt anything will come of that. Alexa questions the accuracy of information being put forth by people who are objecting (mostly due to locations) , but doesn't give any specifics. I know, for a certainty, that one person who has written about the amount of water required got her information from a cannabis industry spokesperson. Alexa seems to think that Environmental Policies will protect the fish and game, but doesn't address the millions of dollars spent by Fish and Game to protect certain species of fish in one of the areas where neighbors are fighting cannabis operations which will adversely affect the species. She also didn't address the comments from neighbors about the issues they are already facing with traffic, smells, and other indignities. One farmer I talked with at a Groundwater committee meeting told me that because of the amount of water required to grow cannabis, food farmers will be forced out of the market place as water is metered. He previously received recycled water on its way to the Geysers, but now is being charged for it. So, dear Vesta, I believe that you owe it to the residents of this county to do a better job of reporting the other side of the cannabis story. Thank you, as usual, for your attention to such matters. Charlene Stone, fifth district

-- I can answer the water-usage part because it’s part of the Basin Plan that makes it mandatory that all wells be monitored and that agricultural wells have meters so the county and state can control what is pulled from the groundwater system. Private wells are more challenging to monitor. Wells are all connected to underground aquifers and the state is monitoring water use to keep them from running too deep and/or dry. Personally, I am grateful that recycled water is being sold instead of given away. It costs a small fortune to clean and local wastewater facilities need the income to keep ratepayers protected from costs they cannot afford. I did give Alexa a serious word count limit so there is no way she could cover all topics. This is an on-going conversation and since I have given a lot of space to neighbors, it was time to give space to a grower. I want to present both sides to this story. The previous issues of the gazette have a LOT of input from neigh bars. You can go lone to read them if you int have a previous issue on hand. Here’s one article doing back to last year: and more: there are more but I don’t have time to give you links to all - the LETTERS and OPED section is FULL of letters from neighbors! ~ Vesta
- Vesta Copestakes
May 7, 2018
Thank you for educating us, Alexa Wall. I didn’t know that cannabis was the bedrock foundation for the County’s economy and that hardware and hydroponic stores were going to close. (Can’t they sell to the growers who have gotten approval for 12 acres of warehouse grows in the city of Santa Rosa?) ...Or that dentists and the Waldorf schools might go under...Or that this industry was going to allow us to recover from the fires.... Or that home invasions will only occur at illegal grows. Then perhaps the small growers would agree to putting up a large sign in front of their property with oversize lettering, POT GROWN HERE so there will be no more crimes of mistaken identity. Let us all remember that no one FORCED these growers into this risky business. No one put a gun to their heads saying, “grow or die”. They took a business risk and it hasn’t turned out to be a good decision. Businesses fail all the time. End of story.
- Nancy Richardson
May 7, 2018
Sorry Alexa, but you are telling a half-truth here yourself. This is yet another article and characterization about how good and hard-working the cannabis growers are and how those folks that oppose the current regulations are uninformed and unaware of the rules. Please. The truth is, the self-regulated grey-market operators (as you put it) signed up to be on the Cannabis Advisory Group and became the people who made recommendations to the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors. After months of crafting regulations that were most advantageous for themselves with total disregard for the impact on the families that lived in the neighborhoods, they were surprised when the neighbors said "not so fast". You should mention here that the AR and RR zones were disqualified after the Supervisors did onsite inspections and discovered for themselves how horrible it was for the people who lived in the neighborhood. I heard you talk about how egregious the scare tactic was on the mailers that said "100 feet from you door". I looked up the rule after I heard you speak about it. While you are correct that the measurement is wrong, it should have said "100 feet from your fence". Not such an exaggerated difference given that most people like to spend time in their yard. And I've listened to a lot of the neighborhood people speak too. I haven't heard any of them talk about prohibition, and yet several members of the cannabis industry and members of the CAG have sent e-mails and made Facebook posts saying that prohibition is what the neighbors are calling for. The truth is, had the cannabis industry and the CAG given balanced guidance to the Board of Supervisors in the first place (instead of promising lots of tax dollars, lots of industry participation and implying neighborhood input into the recommendations), the disruption that happened in the county might not have occurred and many speculative investors wouldn't have had to buy in one location only to be required to relocate later. Hopefully, the end result of all of this is that the County adopts a common sense ordinance for the long term where the cannabis industry has a fair ability to work in the county AND the families that live in the county can raise their children without smelling, hearing and seeing drugs in the yard next door or fearing that they are the next residents subject to an armed home invasion. It is not the bad actors that bring crime and risk public safety, it is criminals seeking readily available drugs with a high street value ("a cash crop") and they don't care whether the grower has a permit - and unfortunately for the innocent families that have been attacked, the criminals don't seem to be able to find the right house.
- Jenny Jenson

Login to Make a Comment

Please support our sponsors:

Your Pets Market in Sebastopol and Cotati, Sonoma County, CA
Order Bees Now from BeeKind

Your GUIDE to support locally-owned garden businesses and natural landscaping practices.

Fine Tree Care - Sonoma County Tree Services

Visit Fine Tree Care WEBSITE for a List of our SERVICES - Testimonials and to request a FREE Estimate

Locally-Owned Jewelry Businesses in Sonoma County

Find Goldsmiths and Jewelers who create custom designs, offer jewelry repair, estate appraisals, and gems.

Flower Shops and Florists of Sonoma County

Please support locally-owned businesses and tell them the Gazette sent you - THANK YOU!