New Sonoma Guidelines Allow 100 Square Feet, 99 Plants

Sonoma County has adopted path-breaking new guidelines in response to the thorny question of how much marijuana Prop. 215 patients should be allowed to cultivate without fear of arrest.

The new guidelines, which were negotiated between the Sonoma Alliance for Medical Marijuana (SAMM) and District Attorney Mike Mullins, are based primarily on growing area rather than plant numbers. Based on scientific studies showing outdoor plants yields are best predicted by lighting area, the guidelines allow patients 100 square feet of garden space. Possession is limited to 3 pounds of dried medicine per patients. In order to stay beneath federal prosecution threshold, patients are limited to a maximum of 99 plants.

Medical marijuana advocates hailed the Sonoma guidelines as a major advance over the fixed plant-number guidelines adopted by most other counties and states, which are typically on the order of 10 plants or less, far less than is needed by most indoor growers. The major exception is Oakland, the only other locality where limits have been negotiated with patients, rather than unilaterally declared by law enforcement. (For a list of local enforcement policies CLICK HERE).

SAMM cited expert testimony showing that plant numbers are an inherently unreliable guide to yield because of the enormous differences in individual plant yields, which can range from a fraction of an ounce indoors to several pounds outdoors, depending on the variety, growing conditions and cultivation techniques. SAMM cited a DEA-sponsored study by Dr. Mahmoud ElSohly, which found that outdoor yields are best predicted by the area of the plant canopy. For average outdoor conditions, the Sonoma guidelines assume a yield of 1/2 ounce per square foot. (In the case of indoor gardens, yield may be better predicted by lighting, according to cultivation expert Ed Rosenthal, who has proposed a guideline of 1 kilowatt light per patient for flowering indoor plants).

The Sonoma guidelines were promulgated following the jury acquittal of two Santa Rosa residents, Ken Hayes and Mike Foley, who were charged with growing 899 plants for the CHAMP medical cannabis dispensary in San Francisco. In a landmark victory for Prop. 215, defense attorneys Bill Panzer and Nicole de Fever successfully argued that their clients were acting as caregivers for the clubıs 1200 members. Panzer asked the jury to "send a message" to Mullins, who claimed that Sonoma should not be supplying pot to San Francisco. Observers agreed that the verdict could put a heavy damper on efforts to close cannabis clubs in California.

Medical cannabis activists hope that the Sonoma guidelines will become a model for other localities, where Prop. 215 guidelines have been in dispute.