The Legalization of a Leaf
Now that recreational marijuana is legal in California, what does that mean for Marin?
THE REPEAL OF PROHIBITION on December 5, 1933, was a night many never forgot. Crowds poured into city streets, revelers jitterbugged atop speakeasy bars, and bartenders plied patrons with celebratory cocktails.
As you may have noticed, nothing quite so dramatic happened when Californians woke up the morning of November 10th to find marijuana suddenly legal. Maybe that’s because, with marijuana considered dangerous contraband for the entire lifetime of three generations, it’s going to take awhile for the new reality to sink in.
More likely, though, the tentative reception reflects the fact that Californians find themselves in a landscape not nearly as simple as Prop. 64 made it sound.
“There are 482 municipalities and cities in California and 58 counties, and all of them are wrestling with this thing, trying to come up with a solution that works for their community, ” says Danielle O’Leary, economic development manager for the City of San Rafael.
“There is a lot of uncertainty about the approach the state will be taking to implement Prop. 64, so our focus is on maintaining local control in the face of those unknowns,” says Marin County Supervisor Damon Connolly.
In fact, some say, the law is so complex and allows for so much wiggle room in the form of local rules and restrictions that it doesn’t amount to true legalization at all. “They sold it as legalization, people voted for legalization, but in reality this is a very timid law,” says attorney Bill Panzer, whose East Bay practice is 95 percent cannabis- related, with cases from all over California, including Marin. “You can still go to jail for pot under this. How is it legalization if you can still go to jail?”
So you may be asking, what did change in November? Assuming you are 21 or over, as of November 10, 2016, you are now legally allowed to own at any one time up to an ounce of weed and up to eight grams of concentrate — that much is pretty clear.
But to have that stash, someone has to produce it and you have to obtain it, and that’s where things get much, much murkier. Under the new law, retailers can’t open shop until January 1, 2018, when the state will begin issuing permits. And before applying for one of those state permits, retailers have to have a local use permit in hand. That means navigating a maze of regulations, both at the state and local level, all of which are still being argued over.
Of course, you can always grow your own. Under Prop. 64, adults can grow up to six plants for personal use, either indoors or in a backyard — as long as the plants are in a locked space that can’t be seen from the street. (Given that a sativa plant grown outdoors could easily reach 12 feet, we’re probably going to be seeing a lot of tall fences going up.) But towns and counties have the authority to ban outdoor growing and regulate indoor as to water, electricity and other issues.
Recreational pot sales will be subject to a 15 percent state excise tax, with $12 million a year in state grants going to study social and health issues resulting from legalization — a timely move, given that AAA just came out with a study showing that 17 percent of the drivers involved in fatal accidents in Washington state were stoned, double the rate documented before legalization there.
Another little-known plus: when you buy legally, you’ll know what you’re getting. Packages will come labeled according to weight, date and source, and you’ll see “nutritional” information such as the strain used and the amount of THC, cannabidiol (CBD) and other cannabinoids, listed by milligrams per serving.
BOOM BABY BOOM
It’s a long and winding road that’s taken us from hand-rolled joints to high-potency concentrates and extracts, with stops for artisanal chocolates, gummy bears and tinctures along the way. Visit one of the new high-end medical dispensaries like San Francisco’s Harvest and there’s nary a copy of High Times in sight; instead you might be forgiven for wondering if you’ve taken a wrong turn into a spa.
“One of the biggest but least known sectors is what we call the MIPs, or marijuana-infused products — that’s your sprays, salves, botanicals, lotions and ingredients for food manufacturing,” says O’Leary. In January, she gave a presentation to the San Rafael City Council on the topic, outlining the revenue opportunities available to cities that choose to cash in on the cannabis business. “Then there are your extracts, tinctures and oils, including whole product lines that have no psychoactive element. This is a huge growth area.”
Under Prop. 64, cities can license businesses in any of six categories: cultivation, distribution, transportation, testing, manufacturing and retail, opting to tax them at rates of 5, 10 or 15 percent. According to a simple projection, annual income from a retail dispensary could range from $2 million for a small business to $18 million for a large retail outlet, giving a city $20,000 to $180,000 from a 10 percent tax.
Among Marin’s municipalities, San Rafael is in a unique position to take advantage of pot-related opportunities, O’Leary says. “Being the central workforce hub, we have the retail and light industrial space, the workforce and the transportation access. It’ll be interesting to see what San Rafael decides to do.” (Not all city officials are so open-minded, though, with several city council members expressing strong reservations.) The city of Larkspur, too, is eyeing business and revenue potential.
At the county level, Assistant Director Tom Lai of Marin’s Community Development Agency (CDA) also sees possibilities in smaller-scale production. “While I don’t see Marin participating in the full gamut of businesses, particularly commercial cultivation, I can see cottage industries, mom-andpop types of businesses, maybe some testing, too; these are clean industries and consistent with the kinds of businesses Marin is known for.”
But any pot-related business opportunity is going to require a very high tolerance for red tape. Which begs a fairly big question: will California’s huge and intricate web of growers, sellers and manufacturers be willing to come into the light from what has been a lucrative black market?
The fact is, California is doing something that’s never been done before in the U.S., bringing a preexisting multibillion-dollar industry under regulation, says attorney Panzer. “A lot of people don’t want the paperwork, don’t want to pay taxes, and they’re going to be asking themselves, ‘Can I survive, can I make a living doing this legally?’”
RESTRICTIONS, RESTRICTIONS EVERYWHERE
Just as individual states continued to enforce alcohol Prohibition by passing their own so-called blue laws, the county and Marin’s towns are moving fast to limit or at least postpone the opportunities promised by Prop. 64. For example, the Novato and San Rafael city councils moved almost immediately to outlaw outdoor growing and regulate the ventilation, lighting and filtration systems required for growing indoors. Similar limits are in place or under discussion in many other Marin municipalities, including Mill Valley, Tiburon, Ross, Fairfax and Corte Madera.
“The way the law was written, you really have to specify what you’ll allow and not allow and that’s why you’ll see a lot of locations passing zoning laws and other restrictions,” says Inge Lundegaard, a planner with the CDA.
And in February, the county banned all nonmedical pot-related businesses in unincorporated areas. “This means storefronts, manufacturing, cultivation — including both outdoor grows and commercial indoor grows — transportation, everything the state is charged with overseeing under Prop. 64,” says supervisor Connol ly. “What we’re saying is, ‘Hey, none of that’s going to happen yet here in Marin.’ We’re going to keep local control until we see what kinds of guidelines the state puts in place.”
Needless to say, legalization proponents aren’t happy to see Prop. 64’s freedoms already curtailed. “If they ban outdoor growing it means if I want to legally grow for myself, I have to have a space in my house that’s large enough, and I have to have halogens and all the equipment for a grow operation, which means my electric bill is going to triple, and I can tell you right now the fire departments are going to get a lot of calls,” says Mill Valley musician and film producer Mitch Stein, a medical pot user. “And quite frankly, there should be no reason why someone shouldn’t grow in their backyard. If it’s legal to grow, there’s no reason why you can’t grow naturally.”
Stein and other advocates see the recent round of restrictions as the latest echoes of a long-fought civil liberties issue. “When we argue about growing six plants versus eight plants, outdoor versus indoor, we’re pushing aside the real issue, which is why are we banning something that causes absolutely no death at all while at the same time promoting legal poisons like alcohol and cigarettes?” says Stein.
JUST WHAT THE DOCTOR ORDERED
Restricting access to marijuana is nothing new for Marin, where there hasn’t been a medical dispensary since 2014. That may be about to change, with the county’s Community Development Agency currently reviewing 10 competing applications for licensed dispensaries in unincorporated areas along the 101 corridor and in West Marin.
At three packed and noisy community hearings in late January and February, local residents weighed in on the various proposals, the majority of which are for sites along Shoreline Highway near Tam Junction or Novato’s Harbor Drive area. The biggest concern: whether allowing a medical dispensary would open the door to recreational use, a scenario supervisor Damon Connolly maintains would not and should not happen. “Our position is that medical cannabis dispensaries should stay separate from recreational because they serve different populations with different needs,” he says. “And right now we’re working to ensure a successful medical program, because that’s part of the county’s mission to provide a social safety net.”
While there’s no guarantee that any of the proposed dispensaries will be approved, Connolly is optimistic. “We see a lot of advantages to folks having that face-to-face consultation and interaction. There are some really high-quality, pharmacy-style operations in other areas and that’s what we hope to see here.”
One of those seeking to open a dispensary is Berta Bollinger, co-president of Caregiver Compassion Group, which currently operates a delivery service. “The variety of options out there is much larger than most people realize, and it takes a lot of listening and explaining to help people find just the right product to help their condition,” Bollinger says. While the most common medical issues for CCG’s 500-plus clientele are pain relief and anxiety, “we see a whole range, from cancer patients in hospice to accident victims dealing with chronic pain.”
As an oncologist, Donald Abrams, M.D., of UCSF has long recommended marijuana to his cancer patients to help ease pain and nausea, increase appetite, improve sleep and relieve depression. “Those are five different symptoms I’d have to prescribe five different drugs for,” Abrams says, “and all would have toxicity and costs, including the potential for addiction in the case of opioids.”
As one of the authors of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine’s first comprehensive report on the subject, The Health Effects of Cannabis and Cannabinoids, published in December 2016, Abrams along with fellow experts summarized the conclusions of more than 10,000 published studies looking into the potential of cannabis to treat Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, migraines, Crohn’s disease, sickle cell disease, arthritis and a host of other conditions. He says due to federal restrictions on research, there just haven’t been enough studies to back up the efficacy of cannabis for addressing many conditions, but the potential is clearly there.
“If this were something we’d just discovered in the Amazon, everybody would be knocking down doors to do clinical trials and investigate its potential because it’s such an amazing medicine,” says Abrams. But unfortunately, he says, with marijuana still classified as a Schedule I [controlled] substance by the federal government, “it’s all about politics and not science and patients are the ones who lose out.”
WILL THE KIDS BE ALL RIGHT?
Certainly if there’s one force driving Marin’s pushback on legal pot, it’s the desire to protect kids. This winter’s community forums on the siting of proposed medical dispensaries were packed with neighbors, particularly parents, arguing these businesses could have a dangerous influence on teens and kids.
Underlying this debate is a serious fear about the ways in which legalization will affect both how much kids use pot and how risky they perceive it to be. And it seems that fear is justified. According to new research published in the December 2016 Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), marijuana use among eighth- and tenth-graders in Washington state went up significantly after legalization, while teens’ perception of pot as dangerous declined.
Interestingly, though, the findings didn’t hold true in Colorado, a difference author Magdalena Cerdá, associate professor of emergency medicine at the Violence Prevention Research program at UC Davis, thinks may have to do with the fact that Colorado’s ramp-up to legalization was longer and more gradual. “It does seem that legalizing of recreational marijuana has potential to increase teens’ usage, particularly in states where medical marijuana wasn’t highly commercialized before,” Cerdá says. “Legalizing marijuana communicates to kids that ‘Well, if it’s legal, then it’s safe,’ and it also sets up a distinction between marijuana and other illegal drugs.”
But given that any household in Marin where adults live can now have an ounce of weed in the kitchen cupboard and a cluster of plants in the bathroom, maybe there’s a different question we really should be asking. And that is, how do we prevent kids’ attitudes from changing along with a changing culture? “It’s about how we talk to kids. Even most of us who are proponents acknowledge that the science shows using at a young age can be harmful to the developing brain and that responsible use includes educating our kids to the dangers of cannabis,” says Stein. “I have personal experience with this myself; I went from being a straight-A student to getting C’s because I was more interested in getting high than doing my homework. So when my kids were growing up, my wife and I educated them on the dangers of this just as we did about alcohol and tobacco.” That said, Stein argues for fact-based education, which eschews scare tactics in favor of a frank discussion of the benefits, risks and pitfalls of stonerdom.
And the younger the better, says Cerná. “We know that early initiation in adolescence is when marijuana is associated with the worst impacts, such as a higher risk of becoming dependent, increase in psychotic episodes, and a higher risk of using often, which brings about a whole host of problems with school, employment and relationships. So we need to invest in educational programs to make kids aware of the risks of starting marijuana use early in life.”
WANTED: CRYSTAL BALL
If there’s one thing everyone interviewed for this story agreed on, it’s that no one right now can predict what legal recreational adult use will really look like in Marin or anywhere in California. While the county and many towns are looking at or approving restrictions, many of those may relax once state policies become clear, many predict.
“The problem is that it’s so new and rapidly evolving that there’s not a lot of case study out there to look at,” O’Leary says. “It’s all moving in real time, yet the pressure to take a position and do something is increasing every day.”
But, Lai and Connolly add, the community is going to have a significant say in what happens next. “We’re soliciting input on questions like, should we allow testing or small manufacturing businesses? How much should we tax recreational cannabis? Should we ban cultivation?” says Lai. “We have a lot of planning to do in the coming months and we want to hear your thoughts.”
This article originally appeared in Marin Magazine’s print edition under the headline: “A New Leaf“.