California Votes Yes on Wider Cannabis Access

While the next wave of legalization states stole the cannabis spotlight on election night, 32 of the 38 measures on ballots increasing access to California’s recreational market also got the victory.

While we’re now four years removed from the success of Prop. 64, the industry’s footprint across the state is severely limited by local control. The large majority of municipalities and county executive committees have prevented the industry from opening up, but on election night, the tide continued to shift.

One of the people keeping the closest eye on local cannabis laws across the state is California NORML’s deputy director Ellen Komp. Komp chatted with us on the success stories of election night from her perspective and helped us read between the lines on that “32 out of 38” number.

Komp started by explaining that not all the initiatives taking place in 36 communities statewide would have been good for the industry. “One in particular in Shasta would have put restrictions on places, and then two were not passed in favor of other measures that were on the same ballot. So there are only three cities that chose not to vote in favor of access and that was Yountville in Napa County, Jurupa Valley in Riverside and Solano Beach in San Diego,” Komp told L.A. Weekly.

Komp noted in CANORML’s election take that despite six things losing, more than 60 percent of voters in the cities of Artesia, Calabasas, Grass Valley, Costa Mesa, La Habra, Madera, Banning, Oceanside, Tracy, San Bruno, Porterville, Ojai, Ventura, Marysville and Vacaville signed off on the idea of cannabis retailers and other businesses coming to town. Komp stressed to us that means the voters are continuing to see the benefit of a legalized, taxed and regulated cannabis market.

“The proof is in the pudding. A lot of people will vote for a tax. Even if they don’t really like marijuana, they’ll vote for a tax on it. In L.A., there were like five different places there was a tax on the ballot. Artesia had a 15 percent tax and they got 67 percent of the vote, Calabasas had a 10 percent tax, they got 62 percent of the vote, and it went on down the line. The bigger the tax percentage, the bigger the vote.”

Elsewhere in L.A. County, Carson greenlit four commercial cannabis operation centers with the door not shut on other kinds of permits. Hawthorne voters approved a 5 percent gross receipts tax for all cannabis businesses. In Pomona, where two cannabis measures made the ballot, voters opted to have the buffer zone on cannabis businesses 400 feet larger than liquor stores.

But just because everything went great on election night doesn’t mean it will be smooth sailing. If we’ve learned anything from California cannabis election results over the years, the trick is certainly in the implementation of the voters’ will.

“Just the fact that these cities and counties are passing these taxation measures doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to start licensing cannabis in any meaningful way or any fair and equitable way,” Komp said. “It’s a process that needs to be watched by local citizens.”

One of the reasons local support is so important is the level of opposition the industry is facing. Komp continues to see opponents showing up with Reefer Madness-style talking points “and what about the children all over the place in the north and south parts of the state,” she said. This has pressured city councils to allow only limited licensing. One example is only allowing delivery services instead of retailers.

We asked Komp if the Anti-Big Cannabis crowd creates a catch-22 for themselves in the sense they force their municipalities to set the bar for entry to the industry so high that only the biggest most well-funded entities end up able to take part?

“Sure,” Komp replied. “What they tend to do is just limit it to one or two players and then those tend to go to the highest bidder who isn’t necessarily a part of the community or a part of the communities that have been impacted by the drug war.”

Komp said limiting the number of licenses has proven poor policy. She said then what happens is all comers come from everywhere to try and swoop in on the limited availability and it’s still leaving the people who are on the ground, who most need licensing and legitimization, out in the cold. Many are forced to remain in the underground market.

“That’s not justice to me. That’s not the kind of legalization I foresaw or would like to see going forward,” Komp said.

When cannabis was first legalized in California, communities quickly took action to issue bans or moratoriums. But it wasn’t always just an anti-pot sentiment that would push those actions. Many times local regulators’ fear of the unknown played a role. We asked Komp if the fog around legal cannabis was clearing and if we might expect more progress with each election cycle since communities would certainly put a mechanism for taxation on the ballot before getting the ball rolling on the industry-building part.

“I don’t see a big change this election cycle,” Komp replied. “I’m seeing it little by little. There have been over 200 of these measures on the ballot in the last decade, something like 90 percent of them passed, especially if they have a tax attached to it.”

Komp believes one thing opening doors for the industry is just local officials seeing the city next door not turn into hippie anarchy.

“Officials are talking about it and seeing the city next door is doing it and they’re doing fine and they’re getting tax money and we’re missing out because people are delivering from there into here, kind of thing,” Komp said before mentioning there have been some places talking cannabis as a means to make up budget deficits resulting from Covid-19.

Komp thinks both of those things are going to push the industry forward in more places. She said it takes a lot of effort on the part of cities to come up with a regulatory scheme and it’s a lot easier to just ban it, but that doesn’t give them the benefits of the regulated market.

“The job benefits, tax benefits, the crime reduction and the tested safe medicine for the consumer. And keeping it out of the hands of kids, because in a legitimate store kids aren’t permitted inside,” she said.

We’ll be keeping an eye on how the industry develops around its big election wins.

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