City planners and leaders are starting to spell out the possible rules and locations for Napa’s future sellers of medical marijuana – even as California voters prepare to potentially throw the doors open to much wider legal use of the drug.

The City Council began reviewing a set of regulations Tuesday night would allow one or more dispensaries to offer cannabis products in certain districts, set minimum distances away from homes and schools, and govern sellers’ operating hours and the minimum age of customers. The regulations also may determine the rules for Napans with doctors’ recommendations for marijuana who want to grow the plants at home.

The discussion revives a long-running debate over medical marijuana’s place in Napa, which has seen the council set rules for a dispensary in 2010 only to abandon them three years later. Hovering over the debate, however, are the wholesale rule changes that may loom in November, when state voters may face ballot measures to legalize pot even for recreational use.

Loose ends remained in the prospective law after more than two hours of debate among city officials and Napa residents, and no new ordinance is expected until after the election. But council members appeared mostly comfortable with allowing a medicinal cannabis seller in town, given enough oversight to reassure neighbors.

“This is an easing-in process, where we have to get the community comfortable with where we’re going,” said Peter Mott of the ordinance-in-progress. “Once you have a dispensary that’s a well-run business, we can revisit it. It’s about (dealing with) fear, fear of change.”

Council members in 2010 passed an ordinance designed to govern a marijuana dispensary within the town, but retracted it in 2013 amid concerns about prosecution from the federal government, which continues to declare the drug illegal.

In October 2015, however, the passage of a landmark California bill launched the setup of a regulatory system for cannabis, whose medicinal use the state first legalized in 1996. The Medical Marijuana Regulation and Safety Act will create a statewide program to oversee the drug’s cultivation, manufacture, testing, transport and sale, with a new governing body to be formed as early as 2018.

With that new backstop of state regulation, in February, Napa revived its drive to create a new marijuana ordinance. Despite the looming ballot initiatives, Community Development Director Rick Tooker urged the city to clarify its law to avoid delaying legal sellers once state regulation takes full effect.

The new proposal is in some ways more restrictive than the rules of the 2010 ordinance. Tooker suggested limiting marijuana sellers to zones marked for medical offices, light industry or corporate parks; the previous ordinance would have permitted dispensaries in some commercial areas.

He also recommended capping operating hours from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., though the earlier law would have allowed a dispensary to open as early as 7 a.m.

One of Napa’s most vocal marijuana advocates urged the city to allow later hours, partly to serve patients entering from surrounding towns with no dispensaries of their own.

“If you have a 9-to-5 job and you’re coming from out of town – say, American Canyon – you may not be able to get to the dispensary by 7 o’clock,” said James Hinton, a Napa County Board of Supervisors candidate, who suggested letting sellers do business as late as 8 or 9 p.m.

Other speakers worried that a planned 1,000-foot minimum buffer around dispensaries – designed to create separation from homes, schools, parks and other sellers – would rule out nearly all possible store locations in Napa. In response, Councilwoman Juliana Inman offered a smaller setback for cannabis shops, though she also sought to restrict them from opening in industrial areas easily seen from major boulevards.

Unlike the 2010 effort that sought to allow only one dispensary to open initially, the latest ordinance would not directly cap the number of cannabis stores, relying instead on zoning to avoid saturating the city. Avoiding a hard limit should head off any complaints that the city is interfering with state regulation, and also give the city a way out if the first local seller proves unsatisfactory, according to Tooker.

“If we limit the number, the first one that gets to a complete application ends up being the only one,” he told the council. “And we don’t know if that’s the one that will best serve the community.”

One Napan hoping to sell medical cannabis in her hometown declared her future business would not threaten Napa’s high-class image among tourists, but augment it. Alicia Rose, a local winery consultant who opened the HerbaBuena dispensary in San Rafael, said she would support a minimum age of 21 for customers, and also asked the city to authorize in-store samplings supervised by employees, modeled after wine sampling at local tasting rooms.

“As someone who has conducted hundreds of wine tastings and dozens of cannabis tastings, I’ve seen firsthand the power of offering our people, especially our elders in the community, the chance to experience this medicine in a safe and guided setting,” she told the council.

After the meeting, Rose said she has met with Councilwoman Mary Luros for counsel on possible dispensary plans if and when cannabis-based businesses become legal in Napa. Luros, a local attorney, recused herself from Tuesday’s discussion, as she did during the council’s earlier talks in February.

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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.