The air is still cloudy around legal cannabis in California. On January 1, 2018, the recreational use of marijuana became legal in the state for consumers over 21, while growing, selling, and possessing cannabis is still illegal Federally. Only days after California’s new law went into effect, Attorney General Sessions rescinded an Obama-era policy that allowed marijuana laws to be left to the states. But that’s merely the backdrop to the many complexities and complications faced by growers, business owners, consumers, lawmakers, and law enforcement.
TO REGULATE OR TO BAN – THAT IS THE QUESTION
Three months after Proposition 64 (or the “Adult Use of Marijuana Act”) passed, there are still more questions than answers as to how to best transition into this green new future, and the range of reactions to this legislation in Southern California can be read as a barometer for how the nation is responding.
Even though marijuana is generally legal in California, Proposition 64 allows city governments to regulate or ban cannabis businesses and activity as they see fit.
In every city, to get a state license to sell cannabis recreationally, you have to first get approved locally – but the rules from city to city vary drastically. Some do not make it easy. Many major cities in Southern California allow recreational sales (including Los Angeles, San Diego, and Culver City, plus smaller places like Lake Elsinore), while Long Beach and others are only allowing medical cannabis shops for now.
Even though Prop 64 clearly states that people can grow up to six marijuana plants, many cities are also banning personal-use growing. Some cities require expensive permits. El Monte requires a $603.86 inspection fee. San Juan Capistrano considers it a misdemeanor to grow without a local permit. This makes it difficult and confusing for individuals to decipher the new law, not just business owners.
LAW V. PUBLIC OPINION
So what does this mean for the residents of these cities? And how does public opinion fair in regard to the law? Bans may mean keeping one population happy, while forcing other residents to drive to nearby cities with more permissive rules, raising the tax revenue elsewhere. Several cities that voted in support of Proposition 64 have maintained a complete ban of the cannabis industry, including Anaheim and Laguna Beach, despite the will of their constituents. With such a divisive and new frontier, how can cities and residents address their varied needs?
Some organizations are taking it to the courts. The ACLU of California and the Drug Policy Alliance filed a lawsuit in June 2017 “against the City of Fontana challenging a city ordinance that is intended to effectively prevent residents to enjoy the rights granted to them by Proposition 64. The Fontana ordinance makes it unreasonably difficult and expensive for residents to cultivate marijuana at their private residence,” (Drug Policy Alliance). Fontana residents are required to pay a $411 fine to grow personal-use cannabis, plus extensive background checks. They must also register with the city, obtain a notarized authorization from a landlord, and allow city officials to inspect their home. If a resident fails to obtain a permit, personal marijuana cultivation could be considered a misdemeanor. According to Drug Policy Alliance, “The ordinance violates several state constitutional rights.” 53.5 percent of Fontana residents voted in support of Prop 64, and yet they have some of the strictest rules.
HOW DO WE CONTEND WITH THIS DISPARITY?
Ordinances such as Fontana’s, with high licensing and permit fees, raise the bar of entry into the cannabis industry, making it inaccessible to many potential business owners. Background checks (in cities that would exclude proprietors or growers with prior convictions), and fees that make obtaining a license or permit prohibitively expensive, are potential contributors to inequality in this new marketplace. The ACLU has reported on strong racial bias in arrests for marijuana possession. So communities that suffered from high rates of marijuana possession arrests in the past are still being punished—doors are not easily opening for them in the marijuana industry.
But some cities and individuals are now working towards amending this past prejudice within this new context of legal cannabis. Los Angeles City Council has enacted ordinances to address these inequalities head on. Under the social equity program,
“The council also has vowed to make sure that disadvantaged communities that were hit hardest by the war on drugs can now cash in,”
writes the LA Times. The program will “give priority processing and other assistance to marijuana business applicants who are poor and were previously convicted of some marijuana crimes — or who have lived in areas that were heavily affected by cannabis arrests.”
But even social justice programs and the best intentions are cause for debate.
Using the exact same reasoning, Los Angeles County Supervisor, Mark Ridley-Thomas, has taken a strong stance against legalization, supporting a widespread ban on retail shops. Governing.com reports that Ridley-Thomas has compared “the spread of pot shops to the blight associated with liquor stores. He has also warned of the health effects of the drug, saying that current strains of marijuana on the street are ‘not your grandmother’s Mary Jane.’ And he has raised questions about whether cannabis businesses, which are still illegal under federal law and have limited access to banking, will be a prime target of criminal street gangs.” He argues that even though dispensaries are popping up in poor and diverse neighborhoods, “less than 1 percent are owned by people of color, according to the L.A. County Department of Regional Planning.” He also warns that legalizing cannabis may have an effect on the homeless population. Though many seem to believe the cannabis industry can be treated as reparations for discrimination in poor communities, Ridley-Thomas sees it as fertile ground for further damage.
Though he opposes the legalization aspect of Prop 64, the criminal justice reform aspect was partly his doing: in February 2018, he helped pass a motion that would call for resentencing of those convicted for past marijuana possession.
“The war on drugs led to decades-long racial disparities in cannabis-related arrests and convictions. We have a responsibility now to seek widespread reclassification and resentencing for those with minor cannabis convictions on their records, including the destruction of court records for youth,”
Ridley-Thomas states. If reparations can’t be made through cash flow in cannabis business, according to the LA County Supervisor, they can be made through resentencing and decriminalization.
Many constituents in cities across California are worried about Ridley-Thomas’s blight argument as well. How will this state-wide change impact their own street? Prop 64 already includes regulations that address where cannabis can be sold, stating that
“California dispensaries can’t operate within 600 feet of schools; some jurisdictions also forbid them within from being within 1,000 feet of parks, day-care centers, and other ‘sensitive areas,’” (LA Mag).
There are further regulations being debated in Los Angeles, which “would create an 800-foot buffer zone between schools, parks, libraries, and facilities for drug and alcohol rehab.” But Governing.com also reports that in other states that recently legalized cannabis, crime decreased around dispensaries and adjacent real estate did not drop in value.
The fog around the cannabis industry isn’t lifting any time soon. Some cities are hiring consultants to help them sift through the complexities of writing a marijuana tax ballot measure. Other cities are holding town hall meetings to hear their constituents out. It is a more nuanced and fraught experiment than one ballot measure can hold. Clearly, there is not one way to move toward legalization and there are many roadblocks up ahead. But maybe lawmakers, activists, savvy business folk, and a million podcasts will point the direction.
Carmiel Banasky is a writer, teacher, editor, and author of the novel, The Suicide of Claire Bishop. carmielbanasky.com