By year’s end, an overhaul of Napa ordinances could bring marijuana into the light of day – literally.

Faced with a vocal crowd of cannabis supporters, the City Council on Tuesday began to edge toward affirming the right of residents to grow marijuana plants not only in their homes – a right enshrined in a state law passed in 2015 – but also outdoors on residential property.

Council members announced their support for outdoor growing as part of a package of city rules, expected to come up for a council vote this fall, that also would govern the placement and operating conditions of a medical cannabis dispensary.

The shift followed more than two hours of often impassioned pleas by cannabis users for easier access before an overflow crowd that spilled out of the council chamber and into the City Hall lobby. More than 30 speakers ranging from college students to long-term patients to entrepreneurs urged Napa to remove roadblocks they said keep medical users away from their needed pain relief – or force some to turn to the black market.

“The time to deliver medicine is now; you need to fix delivery in this town before you discuss zoning” of a dispensary, said Jay Archibald, a Napa resident and business owner. “… No outdoor growth is just asinine. I don’t know if you’re ashamed of the plant, but there are millions of plants we drive by daily that are celebrated, but do more harm than this plant.”

In a memo published last Thursday, city staff had recommended banning outdoor cultivation, and limiting indoor growing to a maximum of 25 square feet with no more than 1,200 watts of power for growing lamps. But local cannabis users attacked the idea of forcing cultivation indoors, arguing that allowing outdoor plants would prevent them from having to choose between marijuana and living space – and let them produce a better-quality product with less expense.

“I live in a 200-square-foot studio,” Eric McKee of Napa told the council. “I don’t have the space to install all the very expensive equipment that’s needed to grow indoors.”

Such accounts appeared to persuade officials leery of cutting into a housing supply already marked by soaring rents and nearly nonexistent vacancies.

“I’ve been persuaded to support outdoor growing,” announced Doris Gentry, triggering one of numerous outbursts of cheering from pro-cannabis audience members. “The truth of the matter is, a house is for living.”

“Let’s put people in these houses, not plants,” said Scott Sedgley. “It’s regressive to tell people to put it indoors. I was a firefighter for 30 years, and some of the worst situations I ever saw came from indoor grows.”

Vice Mayor Juliana Inman was more qualified in her stance toward outdoor cultivation, suggesting Napa follow the lead of a Calistoga council vote last month that allowed its residents to keep two of their half-dozen marijuana plants outside.

With voters’ passage of Proposition 64 in November, Californians 21 and older may grow up to six marijuana plants at home, for recreational as well as medical uses. Cities retain the right to allow or forbid outdoor cultivation on residential lots.

Also Tuesday, the Napa council reached agreement on the zoning and ground rules for any dispensaries that may sell marijuana as California rolls out regulations for the drug’s growing, production and sales. The package of local regulations will be refined by city planning staff, then go before the Planning Commission and council for final approval in the fall.

Although council members declined to support a dispensary for recreational as well as medical sales, they agreed to ease some conditions further than staff members called for. Among the shifts was support for placing a dispensary in commercial zones in addition to industrial and medical office areas, as well as permitting cannabis stores to stay open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., rather than the 8-to-6 hours staff had recommended.

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Napa dispensaries would not be allowed next to or across the street from homes or residential lots, and the state’s 600-foot minimum buffer from schools and playgrounds would apply.

The council did stick with the city’s opposition to commercial cannabis growing or warehousing, although it left open the possibility of small-scale manufacturing in industrial zones – perhaps for edibles — foodstuffs infused with the drug as an alternative to smoking.

Despite the Napa council’s movement toward loosening some of its regulations, one Napa-based doctor predicted further change requires the city to break free from a mindset formed by decades of strict prohibition of the drug.

“The voters do not want what you are proposing,” Ben Goldberg said of city staff’s skepticism of outdoor growing and the slow progress toward opening a Napa dispensary. “… There is no correlation between prohibition and the number of people who use drugs. It’s not the drugs, it’s the society, and we’re treating marijuana as if it’s a toxic substance.

“We can responsibly manage marijuana way easier than we can manage pharmaceuticals or alcohol, (or) we can hide marijuana, treat it like we’re ashamed of it. But that’s our shame – that’s not on the drug.”

Jay Archibald's quote has been corrected for accuracy. 

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City of Napa/Town of Yountville Reporter

Howard Yune covers the city of Napa and the town of Yountville. He has been a reporter and photographer for the Register since 2011, and previously wrote for the Marysville Appeal-Democrat, Anaheim Bulletin and Coos Bay (Oregon) World.