Sonoma Dispensary - Sonoma Valley Cannabis GroupFor responsible health care policy
A Hollow Victory
This sidebar once declared in its headline, “Success!”. And it was true at the time. After 4 long years of cajoling and discussion, the city of Sonoma had finally come to permit 2 walk-in retail cannabis dispensaries.
Unfortunately, that good cheer was short-lived. Though the first dispensary plans to open this spring, its owner, Erich Pearson of sparc, along with his personal lobbyist, Amy O’Gorman Jenkins, have worked with the Sonoma City Council to stop the process for a second dispensary.
Mr Pearson chose to misrepresent his financial situation to the Sonoma City Council in order to convince it to support what amounts to a city-sponsored monopoly, rather than face any competition that would provide medical patients with better prices, more product choices, and additional services.
Ms Jenkins, who runs her own lobbying firm, Precision Advocacy, and is also the Legislative Advocate for the California Cannabis Industry Association (CCIA), is a native to Sonoma. Her ties to the local community afford her a unique position to influence local policy. She was a contributor to the campaigns of cannabis-friendly candidates Rachel Hundley in 2018 and Sandra Lowe in 2021.
Appearances are everything. Contributions can create avenues for corruption, either grand or petty. Cronyism and favors to rig a market are unacceptable.
We thank everyone in this group and on our mailing list for their support, for signing the petition, for writing the letters and contributing to the discussions.
Thanks to Ken Brown and Jewel Mathieson for their years of advocacy for patients’ access to safe, legal medical cannabis. Their goal of local access has finally been realized.
And thanks to our past city council allies Amy Harrington and Logan Harvey for leaning forward on this issue. They helped define Sonoma as a city of progressive values in Sonoma County.
In the meantime, the Sonoma Valley Cannabis Group will continue to keep you informed on all the latest developments in 2022.
Sonoma Valley Cannabis Group
The Voice for Cannabis in Sonoma Valley since 2017
The mission of Sonoma Valley Cannabis Group (SVCG) has been to assist the city of Sonoma form a compassionate cannabis policy that will ensure safe and legal access to medicinal cannabis for the residents of Sonoma and Sonoma Valley.
On January 20, 2021, the city council voted to amend our ordinance to permit an additional walk-in retail dispensary. The newly revised ordinance went into effect on May 19.
A second retail outlet would improve service to the 45,000 people living in the greater Sonoma area. Competition can provide folks here with easy, safe access to more product choice, better services, etc. That’s what the free market is all about, isn’t it? Everybody wins, the city, adult consumers and *especially* medical users.
However, there have been forces within the industry that are working against the second dispensary option and would prefer that the new permit process be slow-walked. You can read about it in this post.
During last week’s council meeting, Vice Mayor Kelso Barnett acknowledged that so-called community benefits are not required for any other type of business, “…If we’re trying to normalize cannabis businesses, we should treat (them) like any other business and to require them to pay a certain percentage of profits to charities I think is a little onerous…” he went on to say that if the business owners wanted to contribute to charities, that’s great, but that the real community benefit is that a dispensary provides product to the community and that there is a 4% business tax that goes to city coffers.
That would be a start. Eliminate the Community Benefits package entirely. Or require a local hire component, some type of minimum wage agreement, and a labor peace agreement/mandatory card check requirement. Nothing more.
Trying to equalize monetary charity or in-kind agreements among the businesses doesn’t make sense. Again, applicants should not be competing against each other in order to score the most points in a “community benefits” category. It shouldn’t be about who donates the most to what. Level the playing field.
Or, let’s take it a step further. There is no reasonable, sustainable argument for denying the citizens of Sonoma access to a competitive market.
A competitive market includes numerous producers that compete with one another to provide goods and services consumers want and need. No single producer should be allowed to dictate the market.
The cannabis business permit process is a bloated mess of regulation and procedures that 1) drains the council and staff of time and energy that could be spent on more important issues, 2) encourages questions around any result that Hdl, a highly controversial consultant, may present to the city council and 3), provides opportunities for applicants to overtly or covertly influence decision makers.
Measure Y failed, but got something right. Let’s move to a streamlined ministerial process that supports the fundamental principles of the free market system. A ministerial review process reduces the liability that is inherent in a discretionary process, as there are no subjective criteria to score or grade. In addition, a simple ministerial review of an application is much less time-consuming than a merit-based review.
It’s just common sense…
There are good people doing good things in this industry. In the 30+ years spent advocating for medicinal marijuana, I have been fortunate to work with many right-minded, compassionate, ethical human beings who labor very hard every day to provide relief for those most in need. They include multi-generational craft cultivators, conscientious edible manufactures and honest retailers. There are also very good people who are attorneys and legislators and advocates and activists who have fought for truly fair, equitable access to cannabis.
But, like most industries, the cannabis trade harbors its share of pretenders and opportunists, greedy to exploit any opportunity to make a buck at the expense of vulnerable patients and consumers.
Nor is government exempt from the temptation to profit. From the halls of state capitols, to county and city council chambers, whether it’s Fall River, Mass, or Adelanto, Ca, news stories about corruption and its corrosive effects abound, serving to undermine public trust in government and the industry.
Though it may be arguable that the city of Sonoma has been guilty of some degree of corruption around money and power in its management of the dispensary issue, it has most certainly succumbed to a corruption of conscience.
Regarding money and corruption, let’s not forget the conflict-of-interest charge alleging that former council member Rachel E Hundley’s spouse may have contracted with Sparc to manage the No on Measure Y campaign – this at the service of Erich Pearson and Amy O’Gorman Jenkins’ desire to dominate the local cannabis space. Let’s also recall former council member Amy Harrington’s questions around awarding a monopoly to Mr. Pearson and the possibility of backroom manipulations among certain principals to ensure the permit.
But it’s the corruption of conscience in the Sonoma City Council that has been the most disturbing and damaging to optimum access to cannabis for Sonoma’s citizens. For the past year, the city council has acted in bad faith by looking for pretexts to stall the process for a second dispensary. Its out-of-touch tactics have included minimizing the issue and ignoring those who would benefit from competitive pricing, products and services. The council’s pernicious attitude toward reasonableness is difficult to fathom.
Consider the hypocrisy of permitting 30+ wine tasting rooms on and around the Plaza, or the lip service council members pay to the medical benefits of cannabis. Consider, too, the council’s inability and/or unwillingness to become better informed, its denial that the public has any interest in a second outlet, the twisting of facts regarding the current state of the local industry, the questionable campaign contributions, the willingness to be misled by Erich Pearson in order to table the RFP, and Amy O’Gorman Jenkins’ attempt to gaslight SVCG to the realities of the dispensary business while pushing for a delivery ban in cities and counties across California.
These are the ingredients for bad policy. But never mind the fear and loathing in the city council, don’t push too hard, don’t hold people accountable, better to play the game and maybe you’ll get what you want… Who would bet on that as an outcome, given the twenty-year history of cannabis politics in this city? Why should the present iteration of the city council be any different from those of the past that stonewalled the will of the people before finally permitting one single dispensary?
A few have criticized this latest take on cannabis and Sonoma. Regarding the money/corruption reference, I’ve been told it’s “sad” that two years later, I continue to perpetuate something that they feel was made up, that I need to get my facts right. The only fact I stated was that an allegation was made. I did not dive into the details of the story; those are for others to research and read at the Sonoma Index-Tribune.
Others have suggested it is again, “sad”, that not all of us celebrate Sonoma’s new dispensary. Yes, a dispensary in Sonoma is a good thing and after 4 years of lobbying the city council, the Sonoma Valley Cannabis Group will take a fair amount of credit for that. Credit, as well, to former city council members who were instrumental in the success.
By all means, please take advantage of the dispensary for your needs, that’s what we fought for. But know also that it comes at a price.
As well-meaning as some on the city council may have been, they also dropped the ball on doing their due diligence on Erich Pearson and ignored the warning signs that the permit process may have become corrupted. The result is we are now saddled with an unethical business owner whose concerns for himself and his bottom line supersede those of Sonoma Valley patients and consumers.
The Sonoma Index-Tribune has expended a lot of digital ink crowing about “Sonoma’s first marijuana dispensary” in articles that amount to promotional journalism, an unfortunate hybrid of hard news and advertising. Think Darius Anderson, Managing Member of Sonoma Media Investments, which owns the Sonoma Index-Tribune. Darius Anderson is also CEO of Platinum Advisors, a major Sacramento lobbying firm and cannabis power broker for whom Amy O’Gorman Jenkins once worked before forming her own lobbying company that includes sparc as a client.
An sf-ethics-lobbyist disclosure-datasets excel sheet created in 2017 listed Anderson’s Platinum Advisors as a lobbyist for sparc.
So, it appears, at one time or another, a lot of folks have shared the same bed. Whether the sheets are “clean” or not, I could not say.
All of the above is only to illustrate that the history of cannabis in Sonoma is as long and storied as it is indispensible and complex. Though the truths embedded in that history may be inconvenient for some, to ignore the facts diminishes them and weakens our understanding of the how and why.
Innovation, tailored customer experiences, competitive pricing, broader selection of products…These are the benefits of competition, something that Erich Pearson and Amy O’Gorman Jenkins of sparc and the Sonoma City Council are bound and determined to deny the patients and citizens of the city of Sonoma.
“As customers return to brick-and-mortar stores after the COVID-19 pandemic, cannabis dispensary owners prepare to provide tailored customer experiences in settings that differ by far from the “trap” stores stereotypes of prohibition times.
The surge of online cannabis deliveries during the pandemic, in addition to price competition has driven cannabis entrepreneurs to compete for offering a broad selection of high-quality cannabis products and finding skillful budtenders that can build a strong community of customers around cannabis culture. In addition, store design and infrastructure remain key assets to differentiate businesses in a crowded market.”
In California, home to some of the most innovative dispensary chains, the Santa Rosa sector, in particular, has grown by being conveniently located along the Highway 101 corridor which helps local cannabis businesses reach beyond the city limits.
Recently, one our our SVCG members said, “It is too bad our city council is “deaf” to the reality of how Pearson does business.”
My response? I don’t know how you get those who are deaf and dumb to hear and speak. It’s absolutely infuriating that not one of them, including Ms Lowe, has responded in any way to our last 4 emails to them. This is unacceptable. That they are busy people and shouldn’t be expected to respond to every little email is not an excuse. It is disrespectful. The message implicit in silence is “I choose to ignore you”.
One could try to make a case that it is we who are disrespectful, so why should we expect dialogue? If speaking truth to power, which is exactly what we’ve done, is considered discourteous, I’m not buying it. It’s so easy to feign aggrievement to help justify one’s refusal to engage the other.
Smiles and handshakes won’t get us what we want. Standing at the podium, hat in hand, murmuring “please” will not get us what patients deserve. One tactic in negotiation is trying to put yourself in the other’s shoes, but it’s difficult to conceive what it’s like to be deaf and dumb to this issue.
Though council members probably wouldn’t admit it aloud, some seem to be in the mindset of past members like David Cook and Gary Edwards, who were more worried about protecting “the jewel that is Sonoma” than looking after the health, safety and welfare of its own citizens. It is embarrassing and shameful and corrosive.
So, what kind of diplomacy, tact or artfulness cuts through an intractable wall of denial?
It seems we can only continue to point out to the city council that its continued blockage of a new RFP and denying Sonoma’s patients and consumers fair access to cannabis is unreasonable and unjustified.
But we need new ideas on how to do that. We do have a pretty good brain trust in this group and we are calling on you now, asking if you have any suggestions, big or small, on how to move the ball forward.
The Sonoma Valley Cannabis Group Policy Committee
The Sonoma City Council continues to deny the process for a second dispensary to move forward:
Sonoma City Council
No. 1 The Plaza
Sonoma, CA 95476
March 21, 2022
To Sonoma City Council and Staff:
More and more of the citizens within our Sonoma Valley community are confused and saddened by the failure of the Sonoma City Council to listen to the advice and counsel of experts on the necessity for all individuals, especially the elderly and those on fixed incomes, to have easy access to affordable medical cannabis. To not allow for a second dispensary only adds to and increases the stress and anxiety of those in need.
The author of this article, Julia Arnsten, M.D., is chief of the Division of General Internal Medicine at Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Montefiore Health System, and a registered practitioner with the New York State Medical Marijuana Program.
Kindly read the linked article. Then please take the opportunity to reconsider the decision that allows the voice of a single individual to sway the council’s judgement; particularly the owner of the business to whom it awarded the sole operating license for a dispensary in the City of Sonoma.
These are the key takeaways from the article:
• 95% of Americans support the use of medical cannabis.
• Poorer people have less access to medical cannabis than wealthier people. Monthly payments can run from $200 to $300.
• Perhaps fewer than half of those who need medical cannabis buy from licensed dispensaries, because they can’t afford the prices.
• Less access helps sustain a black market that exposes patients to unregulated product that can contain dangerous pesticides and molds.
• The fewer the number of licensed dispensaries, the fewer options patients have to access the best products for their personal health needs. In a locality that only permits one dispensary, this can force patients to drive long distances or pay costly delivery charges. This is especially unfair to those on limited budgets.
• Less access helps to sustain the use of opioids and addiction because opioids are much easier to obtain. Opioid-related deaths are on the increase in Sonoma Valley.
The 208 Members of the Sonoma Valley Cannabis Group
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