Cannabis Politics, or The Art of Slow and Steady
Politics, they say, is the art of the possible. So is it possible for a group of formerly outlaw growers and consumers to preserve the best of the California tradition from bureaucracy and the well-financed major players it inevitably favors?
It will definitely depend on the ground game you’ve got within your community. While it’s different everywhere one goes, we’ve made a few good decisions up here that have positioned us pretty well for the future, not just three years after the county attempted to eliminate the industry altogether here. That’s not to say that there are some serious structural inequities that have set us back. But we’ve also found support coming from that hard work in the political trenches locally that also lends itself a competitive advantage as well. And I truly believe this manifests within the product that ends up on the shelves. Any OG that can master the system enough to end up on the shelves, it stands to reason, will definitely have a product that’s built to last. They definitely haven’t made it easy on us to get there, that’s for sure.
Rolling downhill from Sacramento to the counties
Ask anyone making a living in California and they’ll tell you that it’s one of the toughest places in the country to do business. Lots of regulations and plenty of taxes makes for an environment which favors the wealthy and well-connected. We were assured in the run-up during Prop 64 that this wouldn’t be the case. And for what it’s worth, I trusted Gavin Newsom, who started out as an entrepreneur fresh out of college with PlumpJack Winery. He and especially his wife still dine at the restaurant the PlumpJack Group own in Squaw Valley, and one of his chefs helped us develop our edible line. Speaking as a former restaurant employee who once worked towards opening up one myself in Placer County, I appreciated his grind and determination, epitomized by the famous story where he fought, however unsuccessfully, the city of San Francisco when a regulator told him wine was a food and that he had to install a $27,000 mop sink. He had direct experience with the hassle, and supported cannabis legalization early as a Lieutenant Governor. So I was willing to hear him out.
Back in 2016, Gavin Newsom gave the keynote at the NCIA Conference – this is the one where he famously declared the war on drugs to be an abject failure. He brandished the PlumpJacks bona fides and assured the audience that the smaller operators would have a four-year runway to build their businesses before permits for larger cultivation parcels would be approved. Of course, at the 11th hour, the implementing regulations allowed for stacking of licenses, which has led to mega-grows in Santa Barbara which have not only angered the locals but undermined the promise of legalization.
Even for those small farmers embracing the co-operative model, they hit a wall with their four-acre cap, and unlike the big boys, we can’t stack these. Right now, the one true leveler in the state between the big and the small is not the law, but the unregulated market. It’s been said that for every four pounds of cannabis grown in-state, three are sold illegally and usually out-of-state. The unchecked greed of the big boys and the top-down approach favored by Sacramento – and apparently countenanced by Newsom – has led in part to the floundering legal market we are faced with here in the state.
Creating the political oasis
Were it not for a hard-won truce we in Nevada County have been able to broker between the Board of Commissioners and our non-consuming neighbors, all really would have been lost. I still encounter many peers who have left the industry, and you can hear stories like theirs up and down the coast. Those who stuck it out, however, benefited from the Board’s move to fund a county-wide CEQA Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for the cannabis industry. (For those of you who don’t know about CEQA, it stands for the California Environmental Quality Act. Basically most public and private projects set up in the state must complete an EIR to determine the impacts their project will have on the environment, as well as more sustainable alternatives to the project as proposed.) These reports are expensive, and if the county, city or town has opted not to conduct one, it rests upon the operator to do it instead. And if they can’t do it, they can’t get licensed. Them’s the rules.
For us, rather than being first in line, we’ve chosen to take it slow and steady. The relationships we’ve had to construct take time to get right, especially for prohibitionists concerned about crime and addiction. We’ve both had a steep learning curve to gain sensitivity to each other’s needs, so empathy has been the key. Also vital has been the stewardship of the Nevada County Cannabis Alliance, whose leaders have applied the lessons they’ve learned from the business and nonprofit worlds to building our local industry’s future.
From what we’ve learned here, it takes dexterity to maneuver around ever-changing laws that work against you more often than not. However, we’ve managed to rebuild our supply chain by following the four Cs:
- Creativity: In other words, if the law says you can’t do what you used to do, think about what you can do instead,
- Compassion: Helpful with dealing with the skeptics and prohibitionists. Sure beats fighting the War on Drugs ad infinitum.
- Communication: From SOPs to legalese, it helps to stay on the same page
- Consciousness: We strive to help others win, while upholding the integrity of the plant in our local economy.
Again, it’s all about the collective. The big boys can only do so much to you if you stick together.
Things to keep in mind
It’s more than just the industry or the average consumer that suffers when politicians get cannabis wrong. Many longtime followers of mine know Forrest Hurd of the Caladrius Network, who used to supply catastrophically ill children with free cannabis medicine, including his own child Silas – until Prop 64 effectively did away with compassionate use programs like his. Even an attempt to create a new license to give away cannabis was vetoed by Jerry Brown. (FYI, SB-34 has passed the Senate and now sits in the Assembly Committee on Appropriations as I write this. Hopefully Newsom does the right thing and passes it.)
Anyone reading this in other states can certainly take heart in establishing a new industry that won’t have to struggle with the same legacy issues ours does. It will give them an opportunity to get things right the first time – things like social equity, taxes and licensing. Of course, they will have to contend with the big boys and the heavy lobbying they will bring to the table, alongside the prohibitionists and skeptical politicians as well. When those battles get heated, as I know they will, just remember the four Cs, and that standing together, you can make a mighty roar indeed.