In talking with the assorted cannabis-related vendors stationed in Costa Mesa's Avenue of the Arts hotel Wednesday, two things became clear:
1. They were thankful to the Costa Mesa Chamber of Commerce for hosting an educational luncheon to spotlight one of the city's newest industries.
2. Such an event would have been almost unthinkable in the not-too-distant past.
"This couldn't have happened a year ago — it probably couldn't have happened six months ago," said Eric Spitz, co-founder and chief executive of a cannabis distribution company called C4 Distro. "Frankly, we weren't sure we were going to get a hotel that was going to let us in."
"The acceptance of cannabis is evolving," said Spitz, who previously was chairman and president of the former parent company of the Orange County Register.
That acceptance was one of the main takeaways of Wednesday's event, which drew about 125 people who are either involved with or interested in learning more about Costa Mesa's cannabis business community.
Before the official program — which included a panel discussion with representatives of local cannabis firms — guests chatted with people from different companies and discussed their services and products.
Some businesses offered samples of their wares, such as topical creams and water infused with cannabidiol, a non-psychoactive cannabis extract.
"The cannabis businesses that are here today operate lawfully. They pay taxes; they will be supporting our community's economy," said chamber Chief Executive Eileen Benjamin. "They are equal stakeholders in our community."
In Costa Mesa, businesses that research, test, process and manufacture some marijuana products are allowed in a specified area north of South Coast Drive and west of Harbor Boulevard.
Local voters approved those operations with the passage of Measure X in 2016, and businesses recently have started to work their way through the city's approval process.
So far, Costa Mesa has granted permits for nine marijuana businesses in the designated zone, and more than a dozen other applications are in the hopper, according to Jim Fitzpatrick, a former planning commissioner who works as a consulting "solutioneer" for cannabis businesses.
Measure X does not affect the city's prohibition on retail sales of marijuana and marijuana products, as well as cultivation. Instead, it allows "the white lab coats in between," Fitzpatrick said.
Panelists at the chamber lunch said logistics played a role in their decision to open their businesses in Costa Mesa. They pointed to the city's location and freeway access, which make it easier to get products to and from major markets such as Los Angeles, San Diego and the Inland Empire.
Michael Moussalli — co-founder and partner of Se7enLeaf, a cannabis product manufacturer, processor and distributor — said the city's regulatory structure, as well as the hefty competition for space in the Measure X zone, has resulted in Costa Mesa attracting "a very top-notch community of cannabis businesses."
"You're getting the companies that have been in the business for many years, that understand the business," he said.
Several people in the legal cannabis industry who spoke during the luncheon said they want to continue informing the public about their operations in hopes that more education will cultivate wider acceptance.
Events like Wednesday's, they said, are helpful.
"It's a small step, but we're moving forward," said Shanna Droege, co-founder of Sol Distro, a distribution company.