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Napa passes ordinance clearing way to medical marijuana sales, outdoor growing


A pair of buds on a Wild Thailand marijuana plant.

Napa is on the road — again — to legal sales of medical marijuana.

The city’s latest push toward a cannabis dispensary culminated Tuesday night with the City Council’s unanimous vote in favor of an ordinance opening up industrial, office-park and medical office zones to future retailers.

After a second approval vote followed by a 30-day wait, Napa will be able to join the ranks of California cities where smokable marijuana and pot-infused edibles are openly sold – more than four years after the city pulled back an earlier dispensary law amid concerns about clashing with the federal government’s continuing cannabis ban.

With marijuana gaining increasing acceptance both in society and under California law – and with the state building a regulatory framework and set to legalize recreational use on Jan. 1 – a veteran of the local debate told a near-capacity City Hall audience the new ordinance is overdue.

“This is something we’ve tried to pass for years and years and years, and it’s high time we got around and did it,” said Jim Krider, a two-term council member who was reappointed last month and was part of the group that passed Napa’s first, never-used cannabis retail ordinance in 2010.

In addition to marking parts of Napa for medicinal sellers to operate, the law will let residents cultivating marijuana for personal use grow their plants outside as well as in – a practice supporters say will be cheaper and safer than indoor cultivation using growing lights.

California voters’ 2016 passage of Proposition 64 enshrined the right of residents to grow up to six personal-use pot plants, but left it to cities to decide whether to allow or forbid outdoor cultivation.

Napa’s revamped policy aims to make various parts of town available for would-be marijuana retailers while keeping them away from residential neighborhoods and children. It would not permit sales in areas marked for shopping centers and other everyday retail buildings, and dispensaries must be opened at least 1,000 feet away from schools, youth clubs and other child-friendly properties.

However, council members loosened other parts of the law in response to calls from medicinal users, lawyers and the city Planning Commission not to put too heavy a burden on the local industry. In a key break from earlier drafts of the law, the final version requires only a retailer’s owners and managers to submit to criminal background checks, removing a demand that employees and even volunteers also be scrutinized.

The idea of vetting a cannabis store’s rank and file as well as its leaders struck Councilmember Doris Gentry as excessive when compared to the more lenient rules for other adult-use products.

“When I think of these rules, I think of liquor stores,” she said. “We don’t regulate who a liquor store hires or doesn’t hire. As long as he has a state license, isn’t it like a barbershop where the barber hires or doesn’t hire employees? It seems far-reaching for us to tell a store how they will or will not do background checks.”

While marijuana retailers cannot open shop next to or across the street from a home, that restriction will not apply to homes that were built in non-residential areas and received zoning exceptions later. Furthermore, dispensaries may stay in business even if child-oriented businesses like in-home day care centers later open within the 1,000-foot buffer. Certain locations within that limit also may be eligible to host pot sales if they are close enough to four-lane, freeway-grade Highway 29 to block pedestrian access.

Several council members also sought to shrink the dispensary-to-school buffer to a 600-foot radius – the same as California’s minimum distance – but City Attorney Michael Barrett replied state open-meeting law would require rewriting the ordinance and trying again at a later meeting, delaying the launch of legal sales.

Other conditions for Napa cannabis sellers will include security guards, electronic point-of-sale record keeping, video surveillance and an alarm system. Dispensaries can open as early as 7 a.m. and close no later than 8 p.m.

The new policy does not formally legalize marijuana-based businesses but gives them immunity from prosecution so long as they follow city and state laws. Stores will be allowed to sell to patients with a doctor’s recommendation as well as their caregivers, and existing food businesses also can make a sideline of edible products containing cannabis.

Commercial growing, warehousing and testing would remain illegal in Napa.

The Napa ordinance also will open the outdoor as well as indoor areas of homes to cannabis growing for personal consumption, a step supported by advocates who described indoor-only cultivation as wasteful of electricity and a potential fire hazard.

The Napa County Board of Supervisors also discussed allowing outdoor cultivation for personal use on Tuesday, but postponed the matter for more staff study.

But compared to earlier city meetings filled with vocal cannabis supporters, Tuesday’s gathering included some dissenting voices who worried that home cultivation of the oft-pungent plant inevitably would clash with the rights of surrounding homeowners.

James Kasper recounted his experiences with a neighbor he said keeps about a dozen outdoor pot plants at a time. “I have no air conditioning, and in the summer I have to open the windows to keep cool,” he told the council. “At night I have to smell that marijuana smell, billowing in all night long.

“As a father of four, I like to say to my kids, ‘When you’re an adult, you get to make adult decisions.’ As it is, it’s being forced on me and my family, to smell the marijuana.”

Others, however, replied that only the right to raise the plant at home and outdoors would provide them a reliable lifeline to cope with the effects of long-term illnesses.

Myra Snell, a community-college teacher who lives in Napa, described the relief marijuana had provided her husband during cancer treatments – but also the out-of-pocket expenses that resulted.

In the face of the expense of grow lights and electricity, “outdoor growing, in the long term, is the only way we can afford the medicine he needs to get him through the day,” Snell told the council.

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Public Safety Reporter

Howard Yune covers public safety for the Napa Valley Register. 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.

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