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On Nov. 3, City of Sonoma voters will consider Measure Y, the “Personal Cannabis Cultivation Initiative.” If it passes with a simple majority, Measure Y would revise the city Municipal Code to “permit personal cannabis cultivation on all residential properties,” and also permit the “establishment and operation of cannabis businesses within the City, including commercial cultivation, manufacturing, retail, delivery, distribution, testing, and special events.”

Measure Y would supersede the city’s current cannabis-business licensing regulations which, among other things, only allows for single walk-in dispensary in the city. The process for approving the lone dispensary culminated in mid-August with the council’s preliminary selection of the Santa Rosa-based company, Sparc, as potentially the sole licensed dispensary in Sonoma.

Councilmember Amy Harrington, one of the two councilmembers on the city’s cannabis ad hoc committee, said the process was moved forward by the inevitability of Measure Y. “Part of our thinking was that we wanted to make sure a dispensary had been approved by the city, prior to the election, so voters would know that Measure Y wasn’t the only option.

“We selected someone; this is happening.”

The city gets the message

The origins of Measure Y date back to 2018, prior to the establishment of the city’s current ordinance—when the city council didn’t have the votes to support even a single walk-in dispensary. That’s when Sonoma resident and dispensary advocate Jon Early launched a successful signature drive to place a pro-cannabis initiative on the ballot. A delay by the council pushed the initiative passed the deadline for the 2018 vote and what would become known as Measure Y was approved for the 2020 ballot.

When asked by the Index-Tribune if he thinks his 2018 cannabis petition pushed the city to begin revising its cannabis policies, Jon Early answered, “100 percent—it absolutely motivated them.”

After the city delayed to the 2020 ballot a public vote on Early’s cannabis initiative, the city council – with new member Logan Harvey, who supported allowing an in-town dispensary — established its own commercial cannabis ordinance, which allows for one walk-in dispensary in the city.

The other cannabis initiative on this year’s ballot is Measure X, which would impose a 4 percent business tax on cannabis operations. Proponents of Measure Y argue that relaxed rules on cannabis businesses could thus provide a windfall for the General Fund. That is one of Early’s arguments: “Why not consider Measure Y as a tax-paying economic engine for Sonoma, something to help balance out the job losses we are experiencing?” he asks, referring to the downturn in tourism during the coronavirus pandemic.

“That’s not how the cannabis business economy works,” said Michael Coats, who at one time worked with Early on Measure Y and was an ardent supporter. “You want to divide up the pie? It’s still a pie.” Coats, who handles some public relations for Sparc, is a cosigner on the city’s rebuttal to the arguments in favor of Measure Y, along with former winemaker Mike Benziger, who supplies bio-dynamic cannabis to Sparc.

Of his previous association with Measure Y, Coats is straightforward. “I want to point out I had four different cannabis clients at the time,” he said. As a public relations professional, he said, “I take money all the time to deliver a particular task.”

Indeed, among his current clients is Erich Pearson, CEO of Sparc.

Another Measure Y supporter is former city councilmember Ken Brown, who has been advocating for cannabis deregulation in Sonoma for 20 years. Over the past year he worked with his late wife Jewel Mathieson on a dispensary proposal for the city under the umbrella of a Chicago-based cannabis investors group known as Justice Grown. Mathieson passed away on Aug. 5, a little over a week before Justice Grown was runner up to Sparc when the city council tentatively awarded its lone storefront dispensary license.

Brown is reluctant to talk about that result, but is colorfully critical of the city council’s endorsement of only one dispensary. “What they city has done is create, and I don’t know why, a difference between cannabis and all other business. No one’s saying you can only have one tasting room, one gas station, one bank – we live in America; and as a capitalist system, competition is good,” said Brown.

A second dispensary location

During the time his petition for the initiative was circulating in 2018, Early had a well-known interest in the property at 875 W. Napa St., formerly the site of the Annex Wine Bar and Community Café. That same property was proposed in August by Justice Grown for its Sonoma dispensary, and is one of five locations in the city that would be eligible for a dispensary business if Measure Y passes, according to the city’s studies.

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