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Pipe dreams: Will Sonoma miss out on the marijuana boom?

Posted on February 23, 2018 by Sonoma Valley Sun



Though plans for a cannabis dispensary in the back of the building are on hold, Jon Early proceeds with the remodel of 865-875 West Napa Street, the former sites of the Wine Annex and the Community Café. All city approvals are in hand, he says, and discussion with new restaurant tenants are underway for reopening as soon as this summer.
Though plans for a cannabis dispensary in the back of the building are on hold, Jon Early proceeds with the remodel of 865-875 West Napa Street, the former sites of the Wine Annex and the Community Café. All city approvals are in hand, he says, and discussion with new restaurant tenants are underway for reopening as soon as this summer.

Despite the Prop. 64 vote to legalize marijuana in California, a local moratorium – and the city’s lingering conservative ‘reefer madness’ mentality – have thwarted Jon Early’s effort to build a dispensary business in Sonoma.

By Jonah Raskin

Jon Early doesn’t want to believe there’s a conspiracy against him and against marijuana dispensaries in Sonoma. Still, the more he thinks about it, the more likely it seems. How else to explain the fact that he has been unable to obtain a license from city hall to operate a cannabis business within city limits? He’s spent time and money, hired lawyers and he’s tried again and again and every time he’s come up empty handed.

Now, more than ever before, Early sounds troubled when he talks about the possibility of running a dispensary in Sonoma, especially with a moratorium in place.

“I have not been able to find a place to park my butt,” Early told me recently at Homegrown Bagels on East Napa, not far from the location he has picked out for a dispensary. Early added, “I wonder who is talking to whom, and what the real story is around here?”

Perhaps there’s no real conspiracy against him that’s directed by Sonoma politicians, real estate agents and the wine lobby. Nonetheless, Early is in part a victim of the anti-cannabis crusade that has been waged by drug warriors all over the U.S. Indeed, fake news about cannabis is as old as the 1937 law that outlawed marijuana, which had been prescribed by U.S. doctors for a variety of ailments for decades.

While “reefer madness” has subsided, and while marijuana dispensaries have mushroomed from California to Oregon, Colorado and elsewhere; Santa Rosa, Sebastopol and Cotati abandoned the anti-cannabis road years ago.

In Sonoma, in 2016, citizens went to the polls and voted for Prop 64, which legalized the adult use of marijuana. And yet, “the reefer madness idea is very much alive in Sonoma,” Early said. Local pot smokers and pot growers, like the fellow who called himself “Marty Juana,” have told me much the same, though they usually don’t want to be quoted in a newspaper. Mr. Marty Juana got out of town. Early hasn’t pulled up stakes, not yet.

“The whole stigma against smoking pot—which was connected to hippies, sex and rock ‘n’ roll—has never really gone away,” Early told me. “On the subject of marijuana, Sonoma is the most conservative community in this part of the world. The people who are against dispensaries throw up their hands and say, “Oh, what about the poor children!” Early paused for a moment, then added, “Give me a break! Even in Napa change is happening.”

Early has his detractors; the industry is rife with backbiting and backstabbing. Still, he might have been a shoe-in for the role of Mr. Marijuana in Sonoma. He’s white and middle class, well educated and well spoken. He looks handsome and physically fit, has money in the bank and moneyed men around him.

Early and his wife live in town and support local businesses. They have dear friends in the wine industry. Back in the late 1960s, he served in the Vietnam War when it became evident to him and other soldiers that the U.S. couldn’t win militarily. Early allows that he was “a hippie, briefly and smoked ten joints a day.”

That was a long time ago. He was hurt more by a falling coconut that hit his head by accident, he says, than by the pot he smoked in his younger days, though he admits that smoking marijuana can make him paranoid. But who wouldn‘t be paranoid when possession of a joint could bring a sentence of from five to ten years in prison?

Marijuana is much more potent now than it was in the Summer of Love, or even a decade later when the U.S. celebrated its bicentennial in 1976. Still, ten joints a day—Early’s dosage as a pothead— would have given him a buzz, even if the cannabis didn’t have much THC.

Now, he doesn’t smoke to get high. “Been there, done that,” he says. But he uses “CBD rich” cannabis as a tincture, a topical and a salve. The strains without the psychoactive stuff have proven to be an effective way to manage pain.

Early has played by the rules. He has obtained permits to grow marijuana, has his products tested and he’s found that they’re “clean” and “green.” Hence, they have received certification from “Clean Green”— an organization that tries to set standards in an industry that has bridled at standards.

Bring them on, Early tells nearly everyone he talks to at city hall, but to no effect.

“I have a product, a brand and a following,” he told me. Farmacann is his label. ( Early’s products are sold at some of the biggest and best dispensaries, from Sacramento and Oakland to Santa Cruz. His techniques and his methods of manufacturing are top-flight.

“I told the council members, the city manager and the city planner that Sonoma could be home to a $50 million-dollar-a-year business,” Early explained. “They didn’t give a damn. It was in one ear and out the other.”

Early grows organic grapes and makes wine sustainably, including a special vintage called “Early Responders.” The label acknowledges the efforts of fire fighters who saved his vineyard and his grapes during last autumn’s blazes.

Now, he wonders whether the wine industry has exerted its muscle to ban marijuana.

“I know that there’s wine industry concern that the expansion of cannabis will reduce the sale of red, white and sparkling wines,” he told me, though he added that in his view, “cannabis and wine go together like bacon and eggs.”

That may turn out to be true. One day Sonoma might have cannabis-tasting rooms next to wine tasting rooms. Meanwhile, the grape and wine industry is divided on the subject of cannabis. Some want to stamp it out. Others are cultivating it. Mike Benziger has moved from growing biodynamic grapes to growing biodynamic marijuana that’s marketed under the Glentucky label. But Benziger is in the wilds of Sonoma Mountain. He’s not a presence on, or anywhere near, the Plaza, where Early wants to make his mark. Still, he knows that marijuana bought and sold legally in the shadows of city hall is a ways off, much as a dispensary is also a ways off.

Sonoma cannabis activist Gil Latimer calls himself a realist and a skeptic. For the most part, he defends Sonoma when it comes to marijuana, though he has some gripes. “The city should have hammered out an ordinance six years ago,” Latimer told me. “Now, it has no choice but to follow the path it has chosen. Jon Early ought to know that.”

Not long ago, Latimer created the Sonoma Valley Cannabis Group, which has a Facebook presence and more than 100 private members. Latimer says he drives to Cotati, Sebastopol and Santa Rosa to buy cannabis that he uses it medicinally. The journey from Sonoma gets old fast.

Latimer allows that Sonoma is behind the times. A familiar face at city hall meetings, he has concluded that officials have wished that the whole issue of marijuana would just go away. Now, he’s willing to be patient and wait out the long, slow process that might or might not result in a cannabis ordinance. “We could have had one long ago, but Ken Brown recused himself from that crucial vote,” Latimer remembers.

Indeed, it’s too early in the game for Early, or for anyone else to ride the cannabis wave into Sonoma. He knows that, even as he gears up for another round of conversations and negotiations with the city. After dozens of meetings, he doesn’t quite trust elected officials, though he likes to quote Mayor Pro Tem, Amy Harrington, who asks rhetorically, “Why are we adults policing other adults?”

The city doesn’t seem to trust Early when it comes to cannabis. David Goodison, the planning director, arrived unannounced at his property on West Napa Street. “He wanted to see if I was violating the moratorium,” Early said. He added, “I found a similar kind of attitude when I went to East Eighth and talked to landlords. When they learned I was in business they wanted to triple the rent. I asked why and was told, ‘you guys are making a lot of money. I want some of it.’”

Almost everyone wants a cut, though there are others who want to be cut out entirely.

Early allows that the only legitimate reason not to grant him a permit to operate a marijuana business—whether a dispensary, a delivery service or a manufacturing center— is Jeff Sessions, the Attorney General, who has vowed to revive the war against marijuana that Nixon, Reagan and the Bushes all supported and that Congress fueled.

“Sessions is everyone’s biggest fear,” Early said. “But the odds of getting hit by him are very slim.”

Meanwhile, Early is overseeing the renovation of the building at 875 West Napa that once housed the Community Café and where he plans to open a snazzy restaurant. He’s also thinking about moving his pot operations to Palm Springs, where, he says, he’ll have all the necessary permits and the co-operation of the city.

Palm Springs doesn’t have a hippie skeleton in the closet. Sonoma does. Maybe that explains part of the reluctance to ride the cannabis wave. Better to be known by a crop that’s legal rather than one that illegal, according to federal law.

“There’s the example of Berkeley,” Early told me. “They declared the city a cannabis free zone and they reduced the tax on cannabis.” Why can’t his hometown be more like Berkeley, he wonders, and why can’t there’s be less sniping within the cannabis community?

Ken Brown complains that the location Early picked out for a dispensary is inappropriate because it’s too close to the public library. Inside the library, however, no one with a book in hand expressed unhappiness with a dispensary a few doors away.

“I like the idea,” the librarian, Lisa Kleven Musgrove, told me. She added facetiously, “Libraries have always been hangouts for drug dealers.” At least someone has a sense of humor on the subject.

The Sonoma Valley branch of the library has a good selection of books about marijuana. As a boy, Early skipped the books and went for the real stuff. “I started to smoke at 16,” he told me. “My older sister turned me on.”

At Homegrown Bagels, the owner, Stuart Teitelbaum, came out from behind the counter to kibbitz with Early about cannabis, bagels, New York long ago and Sonoma right now. For the moment, bagels are legal, pot not and Jon Early is without the permit he still craves, and will go on fighting for. Even if he fails, he will have helped to pave the way for whomever succeeds.

Jonah Raskin is the author of “Marijuanaland: Dispatches from an American War.” He shares story credit for the pot feature “Homegrown.”


3 thoughts on “Pipe dreams: Will Sonoma miss out on the marijuana boom?

  1. I am a former member of the Sonoma County Growers Alliance and currently belong to the local chapter of the California Cannabis Industry Association. I formed the Sonoma Valley Cannabis Group to help former mayor Ken Brown and the city of Sonoma realize a permitted medicinal dispensary within the city limits.

    Thank you for your article, Jonah. However, I would like to put a finer point on a couple of items.

    The Sonoma Valley Cannabis Group currently has 189 members and continues to grow.

    That Sonoma could be home to a $50 million-dollar-a-year business may be a bit overblown. Based on figures supplied by California’s Board of Equalization (BOE), in 2016 each marijuana dispensary license brought in an average of $562,093, gross. That still represents a substantial amount of tax revenue for the city, by the way.

    As far as wine and cannabis getting along, both are realizing that they can exist to mutual benefit. The recent “Wine and Weed Symposium”, held in Santa Rosa this past August, served as an ice-breaker between the two industries. Both understand that they share common opportunities ranging from designating appellations to courting tourists. I very much doubt recreational cannabis will have any real impact on wine sales.

    It is the case that there is some backbiting within the cannabis industry, but what industry doesn’t include that?

    Regarding quotes attributed to me, just to straighten the record a little more, Ken Brown recused himself from city council discussions around a dispensary six years ago based on bad advice from an attorney.

    The only defense I have for the city of Sonoma and this issue is that Sonoma has no choice but to go through the same ordinance process every other city has. Otherwise, up to this point, it has done no good service for its residents, especially patients.

    As far as Mr. Early’s complaint that he doesn’t seem to be trusted is concerned, perhaps there are reasons for that, perhaps not. But, the standards for permitting any cannabis business within the city of Sonoma will be very stringent. There will soon be other interested parties besides himself and he will have to get in line with everyone else.

  2. The city of sonoma is missing the boat and will loose out big time on tax revenue from this operation… Other sonoma country towns are more on top of it. Santa Rosa and Sebastopol both have rec dispensaries. I don’t like that they are doing this to Early and I think locals that depend on pot for their medical and rec needs now travel to other towns…. It really is too bad cause Sonoma allows all kinds of wine tasting rooms and are pretty over the top in regards to that…… This operation is close to the library but so what ? It is not next door…. It will be sad if early takes his business to Palm Springs. Many of us miss the annex and community cafe. They were doing fine….Until Early took away the lease for his pot dispensary in the works……..

  3. Yes, Palm Springs is lovely and much more cannabis business friendly Jon Early. Activists have already worked with local politicians to pave the way for your business. The same work is being done here in the valley by devoted residents like Ken Brown, Gil Latimer and Sarah Shrader. I would like to see a coveted cannabis dispensary license go to a long time resident, engaged in the local politics and community here in the Sonoma Valley. This will be a huge boon for our city once it happens (its just a matter of time) and I think we should reward an applicant based on merit.

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