California pot industry divided over ballot legalization measure

(Photo credit: Dank Depot via Flickr)

California voters will decide whether to legalize recreational marijuana in November. That’s exactly 20 years after state voters approved the nation’s first medical marijuana law. But the medical marijuana industry is divided on full legalization. Some say they’re worried it will open the floodgates to agribusiness and destroy the state’s cottage industry for growing pot. Others say legalization has the potential to benefit poor communities of color hardest-hit by the war on drugs. FSRN’s Carla Green has more, from Los Angeles.

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Aaron (not his real name) is a commercial medical marijuana grower in Los Angeles. Or, as he prefers, ‘cultivator.’ We were supposed to meet at Aaron’s grow-op – that is, his indoor growing operation. But just a couple hours before the interview, he called to say he wasn’t comfortable having strangers around his plants.

“I started having second thoughts,” he explained during a meeting at his house. “I started thinking about the security issue … It’s just bad security culture to bring people around your place if they don’t necessarily have to be there.”

Medical marijuana is legal under California state law. But, because of a confusing web of county, city, state and even federal laws, what that means in practice varies wildly from one place to another. That means that most cultivators like Aaron, live and work with the prospect of being busted hanging over their heads — hence the pseudonym. The irony is that these illegal grow-ops sell to dispensaries, who in turn legally sell to medical marijuana patients with a doctor’s prescription. But – there’s a catch.

“Cultivation exists in a gray area of the law, in most of California, particularly in Los Angeles,” he said. “We all know dispensaries have existed for a while and basically it’s legal to purchase medicine from them, but they haven’t actually addressed where that medicine comes from yet … Anybody can go to jail any day for doing this.”

That means that, for the most part, growers are – understandably – paranoid about their livelihood.

A ballot initiative this November could change all that. California could follow Colorado, Oregon, Washington and Alaska to legalize recreational pot. And – that could make Aaron’s life easier. Although marijuana would still be a controlled substance under federal law, he wouldn’t have to be so paranoid.

That doesn’t mean everyone is on board, though. At a recent California Growers Association meeting, the membership was split down the middle: 148 for, 147 against, 179 on the fence.

Aaron himself is ambivalent.

“I switch back and forth. Some days it’s yes, some days it’s no,” he said. “Coming from the activist community, it’s hard for me to vote against something that’s going to legalize adult use, and decriminalize it, so I would probably hesitantly vote yes for it. Cultivators are entrepreneurs who worry about overhead and risk. There’s fear of the unknown. Wholesale prices could fall. Big producers could squeeze out the smaller competition.”

But Aaron says what he’s most worried about is that the new regulated market will be too heavily taxed, driving buyers to the black market – with all its risks – like bootleggers selling unlicensed booze.

“If the prices start to get too high versus a black market, which – the infrastructure exists – people are going to begin avoiding the regulated market and go back to the black market,” he said.

Virgil Grant and Donnie Anderson run a pair of dispensaries in Los Angeles.  Anderson’s also the lead chair of the California NAACP’s Cannabis Task Force, which has helped to shape and advocate for the November ballot initiative.

Both say people of color are being left behind in California’s marijuana boom. So they’ve formed the California Minority Alliance.

“The patients in the South Central area have very limited access,” Grant said as he shows the dispensary in Inglewood, part of South Central Los Angeles.  “and we need the medicine just as well, so, we definitely need shops that are going to service the community here, and not be afraid to come in here and service the community.”

Some growers worry that once pot is fully legal, the big money will come in and take over production and sales. But Grant says there’s another side to that coin. Risk-averse big money may start to trickle in as the law gets clearer, but, so will risk-averse minorities, who will finally be able to get involved without fear of arrest.

If you look at the statistics of a white person going to jail for the same drug offense, they’ll do less time, and the minority Black or Latino will do more time,” Grant said. “So, of course, that makes us very hesitant to get involved in something that has so many gray areas. And this industry has had so many gray areas. So that’s kept us – Black folks and Latinos – out.”

Grant has first-hand experience with the War on Drugs. He was released from federal prison last year after serving just under five years for criminal conspiracy to distribute marijuana. Grant was arrested in 2008 for running six medical marijuana dispensaries, including one in Compton, where he grew up. And he says being black made him an easy target.

“No doubt. Because of who I am, because of my background,” he said of his arrest and prosecution.

But many in the industry are skeptical about full legalization. Do perhaps some of these people view the issue from a place of privilege?

“Of course,” he replied. “It comes from a person whose family – they don’t have any family members who’ve been convicted. … If you haven’t lived that, nor understand that, nor be a sympathizer to that, then of course you’re going to be on the other side of that fence.”

Local authorities are struggling to get a handle on the marijuana boom. On the one hand, recreational marijuana is still stigmatized. Not everyone thinks it should be legal. On the other hand, the expensive War on Drugs is increasingly unpopular. And if the laws are changed, cash-strapped city and county governments want in on the millions in un-taxed revenues – maybe as much as a billion dollars, according to one state government estimate.

A recent Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors public hearing on tax proposals for  recreational marijuana, legalization advocates warned against levying unreasonably high fees and levies that would allow the illicit trade to thrive.

“The black market has historically thrived in communities stricken with poverty and disadvantages,” Armando Gudiño of the pro-legalization Drug Policy Alliance told the supervisors. “And then that will in turn probably maintain the same kinds of policing practices we’ve seen.”

Legalizing recreational marijuana isn’t just about the big vote in November, Gudiño says. It’s also about the nitty gritty details – of taxation and zoning laws.

“This is just good old politics at play, and because it’s marijuana, it’s no different,” he said. “It’s probably going to be even more complicated.”

If the ballot measure passes, there’s hope that some of the harm of the war on drugs might be reversed. But, of course, there are challenges: not pricing out the little guy or excluding urban Black and Latino communities. All of that is in play as California voters prepare for the November vote – another step in the state’s long-running debate over weed.

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