Commercial cannabis in the City of Los Angeles is at a critical crossroads.
Medical and recreational cannabis are legal in California, the state will issue licenses at the start of 2018 and a whopping 80 percent of L.A. voters approved a measure to regulate and tax commercial cannabis.
Yet last month, L.A.’s city council released draft regulations that keep cannabis businesses illegal, and the city attorney and the Los Angeles Police Department keep raiding local businesses with draconian regularity.
It’s a catch-22 for operators who must decide whether to come above ground and risk enforcement or stay in the shadows and miss the opportunity to go legit.
As one of the world’s biggest urban markets, the way L.A. regulates cannabis has far-reaching consequences. That’s why a year and a half ago, a group of business owners, patients and attorneys started the Los Angeles Cannabis Task Force. We’d finally seen regulatory guidance from the state of California, when Governor Brown signed the Medical Cannabis Regulation and Safety Act, and knew L.A. had an opportunity to straighten out its massive, yet largely unregulated, system.
A lot of community organizing and advocacy later, we thought we were closer to a solid regulatory system in L.A. Measure M (which, among other things, will allow the L.A. to establish new regulations and enforcement measures, after public input, for commercial cannabis activity) passed by 80 percent, a margin almost unheard of in elections.
California legalized recreational cannabis. State regulators touted their progress in issuing licenses.
And then the L.A. City Council released the draft regulations—and it became very clear that there’s still a lot of work to do.
Instead of issuing licenses, the city wants to give cannabis businesses a “certificate of compliance” and “limited immunity from prosecution.” There are so many problems with this framework that it’s hard to know where to begin.
First and foremost, the regulations don’t necessarily repeal Proposition D – the longstanding, failed local policy that has kept operators and patients in legal limbo for years. Measure M called for the repeal of Prop D, but this proposal actually expands its framework.
The proposal keeps commercial cannabis businesses illegal in L.A. It doesn’t create business licenses. It doesn’t align with state law. It doesn’t honor the will of state and local voters. Instead, it perpetuates the criminal-first mentality about cannabis that has driven the war on drugs for decades.
The city’s proposal has had an immediate chilling effect on business owners, many of whom started wondering aloud whether to come out of the shadows or even keep their businesses in LA. Investors also raised the alarm, asking if L.A.-based projects are viable under the proposed regulations.
Given all this, you might think the L.A. city council doesn’t want cannabis businesses in L.A. But you’d be wrong.
For over a year, the council has publicly said they want regulations that are a model for the country, and that our industry can help restore L.A.’s manufacturing and industrial zones. They know that cannabis creates good paying jobs and capital investments, and that for too long these benefits have bypassed mainstream city planning.
And I’m betting – even though nobody has said this aloud – that cannabis revenue is key to bridging the city’s $245 million structural budget deficit. Plus – those police pensions aren’t going to pay for themselves.
Earlier in July, more than 400 stakeholders showed up to a planning department hearing to give feedback on the proposed regulations. In response to our concerns, city staff has said the proposal reflects L.A.’s concern about federal cannabis laws. This is the same mayor, city attorney and police chief who are fighting the feds tooth and nail on immigration. I’m totally confident they’re also up for a cannabis fight.
The 60-day comment period on L.A.’s regulations closes in August. In the run-up to that, the task force, alongside the United Cannabis Business Alliance and the UFCW Local 770, will keep advocating for a licensing system that’s fair, honors the will of voters, and aligns with state laws.
Our message is simple: It is time for our industry to be treated as the legitimate, legal business that it is. Los Angeles is under a microscope for the state, the country, and the world to see. City leaders, it’s time to rise and shine.
Ruben Honig is the executive director of the Los Angeles Cannabis Task Force. A founder and principal at Ceres Strategies, Honig specializes in local licensing and governmental affairs throughout the state of California, and was a driving force behind the creation and passage of Measure M. A Massachusetts native and medical cannabis patient, Honig previously operated a successful national copywriting business and spent three years in sports and brand management. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in Economics from Emory University.
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