It has been almost three years since California voters passed the Adult Use of Marijuana Act (Prop. 64) which legalized adult recreational use of all forms of the previously outlawed, cultish and notorious herb-like plant. What was once a story of shady business practices and sometimes violent crimes has now become a series of equally contradictory dealings in government permitting, neighborhood squabbles, taxation tables and dashed predictions. All that, plus the continuation of what might be called an even darker (illegal) black market of outlaw weed.
One prediction made on the eve of the November 2016 Prop. 64 election has come true. The transition from an illegal market to a multi-billion dollar legit industry, it was predicted, would not come easy and would take several years and legal tinkering to reach a new equilibrium.
This is not to say there have not been positive developments since the lifting of the marijuana prohibition. New and more accessible cannabis and hemp based medical products are now on local store shelves and available at local cannabis dispensaries where customers previously needed a doctor-approved medical marijuana card. Now anyone over the age of 21 can purchase and use edibles, leaf, ointments and oils for such ailments as arthritis pain, migraines, PTSD, anxiety, relief from chemo treatment side effects and more. People who prefer altering their consciousness by smoking pot instead of consuming alcohol can now do so without fear of getting busted.
But the updated story of cannabis in California today remains one with many more questions than answers. And, there is not just one set of questions as there are varied constituencies with their own sets of concerns and unknowns. Among these are parents with teenagers, small would-be cottage cultivators, pretzel-twisted government officials, medical professionals, neighbors of proposed cannabis facilities, watchful wine industry competitors and others.
“It hasn’t been a linear path for the applicants, the regulators, anybody. We have to be pivoting constantly to move everything along,” said Milan Nevajda, the deputy director of Sonoma County’s Permit Resource Management Department (Permit Sonoma.) As it turns out, the path to moving from an underground pot economy to a legitimate day-lighted industry is anything but a straight line.
Sonoma County’s history with cannabis is a long one and is currently the subject of a featured display at the Museum of Sonoma County. (The exhibit is set to close this week on Sept. 15.) Decades before the passage in 1996 of Prop. 215 (Medical Marijuana Program Act), the backcountry hills here were dotted with illicit and secret pot gardens and cottage operations. A few thousand rural land owners augmented their incomes from seasonal outdoor and year-round indoor “grows.” Many of those operations continue today, some with Prop. 215 medical licenses and many more without. Prop. 64 was supposed to signal the end of pot prohibition but, right now, it is not happening. Only a small handful of cannabis cultivation permits have been approved and hundreds more are waiting in a long line of permit paperwork, land use challenges and very expensive startup costs.
Our experiment to regulate cannabis as a licensed and taxed industry is beginning to look like how we ended the short-lived prohibition of alcohol in 1933. Just a few years after the repeal of the Volstead Act, four-fifths of the U.S. distillery output was owned by just four corporations. Regional beer making was typically controlled by a single commercial brewery. Good or bad, thousands of bootleggers and home brewers were put out of business by the new licensing laws.
However we continue to pivot through full implementation of Prop. 64, Sonoma County should be faithful to its marijuana heritage of small, family-owned operations, very similar to our wine industry and farming roots. Meanwhile, the list of cannabis questions seems to be getting longer, not shorter. Maybe we need to chill a little.
— Rollie Atkinson