Column: In the age of Trump, how do you build a legal marijuana industry from the ground up?


Election night 2016 was such a shocker nationally that maybe you’ve forgotten that, oh yes, California voted to legalize recreational marijuana. And come January, if you’re at least 21, cannabis can be officially taxed and sold to you, just like, oh, the cheese doodles you’ll be wanting to eat after you light up. It is a massive undertaking, turning an illegal underground industry into a legal and legit one – a business that could put $50 million a year in tax money into the city’s purse.

Last month, Mayor Eric Garcetti chose Cat Packer to be executive director of the department of cannabis regulation. He, and the City Council and a cannabis commission, will be crafting the city’s rules and regulations for who can sell what where, and Packer’s office will be enforcing them. She was California coordinator for the Drug Policy Alliance, and she doesn’t underestimate the scale of this, everything from how sellers get licensed to whether to put bins at the airport for tourists to throw away their pot before they board a plane. As L.A. becomes the biggest pot-friendly city in the nation, the nitty-gritty of making it work here could be the making or breaking of cannabis deregulation nationwide.

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This is a job that’s never existed before. How do you create a job like this from scratch?

The City Council has been working on developing rules and regulations and policy in this area for about a year now. We’re having conversations about how to make this right for Los Angeles, but I think this starts with having the right people at the table — community members, industry stakeholders, patients, consumers, community members who don’t want anything to do with cannabis.

When you took the job, what was the responsibility? They said, go and do this. What is the “this” part?

My job will be implementation, because lots of the policy decisions will be made by the City Council. You’ll have 15 members of the Los Angeles City Council deciding what’s right for them — and lots of communities in Los Angeles look very different from other communities — and to try and create a comprehensive framework for what can be very polarized positions.

California and the way that it’s developed its cannabis policy is really going to be a model for the nation. I’m hoping that Los Angeles can be a model for the nation as well. The reason I say that is California has the most social justice-oriented cannabis policy that’s been developed thus far. How do you bring drug policy and social justice issues in the same world? How do those issues intersect? The reason why I actually got involved in cannabis policy is because of how drug policy and social justice concerns intersect.

It sounds like you came to this not thinking “let’s legalize marijuana” but “let’s even the playing field, let’s make things fairer.”

America has operated under this system of prohibition for a very long time, and we know how impactful this policy has been in terms of criminalization. And so in my approach to cannabis policy, it’s really been trying to figure out, what are some smarter, safer, healthier alternatives to the war on drugs? And I think that deregulation is that safer alternative.

In California, we’ve waged this war on drugs using cannabis as the marker, and now under California law, cannabis is not even a drug anymore. By definition, cannabis is not even a drug.

I truly believe if we don’t take the moment to acknowledge our past policies, the history of cannabis policies in this country, then we’re bound to make the same mistakes as we move forward.

You talk about social justice. How is this a remedy, or at least go some way toward a remedy?

In a number of different ways. One of the most interesting things I’ve found about cannabis policy, particularly how it’s developed here in the United States, is that even from the beginning, in 1937, when cannabis was first made illegal here, there were racial overtones to how that policy was crafted.

There was a guy by the name of Harry Anslinger. He was the director of an organization, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, which was the predecessor to the Drug Enforcement Administration. And Harry Anslinger was a racist man. He felt as though only blacks and Latinos smoked cannabis, and that it made white women want to sleep with black men. He said this; all of this is recorded, this is history. But people don’t know that.

And so we speed up to modern day. We’re in a country where African Americans and Latinos are four times more likely to be arrested for cannabis. We had those same connotations and thoughts in our minds 70 years ago.

We know that for years and years we’ve had these disproportionate arrests, particularly in low-income communities and communities of color, and to me it asks us, are we going to be indifferent about it? Do we care about the fact that these community members have been denied access to housing, education, employment for the very same plant that is now an economic opportunity?

There is so much irony in that: You could literally have lost a job or been denied having a job for a past cannabis conviction, but now it is an entire job and industry.

Under California law, cannabis is not even a drug any more.

— Cat Packer

Now I’m in this position as this industry is laying its foundation: How do I, how does the city of Los Angeles, acknowledge these past cannabis policies and the role that it’s played? I think it requires us to acknowledge the harm that community members have experienced, and then try to create policies that address those harms. So one of the things that Los Angeles intends to do is to create a social equity program by where we would allow community members and individuals who had been most impacted by the war on drugs to have access to this industry in a very meaningful way.

To be sellers or growers?

Right, to participate in this legal industry. Because ultimately and even today, the difference between what is legal activity and illegal activity could be having a license from my department, or working for someone who has a license from my department. It’s very important that they have these legitimate job opportunities because not having legitimate job opportunities means committing a crime.

I don’t think this is going to happen overnight. This industry wasn’t built overnight. There are folks who have been in this industry illegally longer than I’ve been alive. It’s going to take some time before we get this right, and even when we get this right, it will not be a perfect policy but I promise that it will be a better policy than prohibition, because prohibition has truly been a failure.

How useful have medical marijuana regulations been in crafting recreational marijuana regulations?

The Adult Use of Marijuana Act was built largely upon the medical regulations. Folks understood that the Legislature was moving in 2015 with the medical cannabis deregulation and safety act, and when they put this ballot initiative together, they understood they were building a framework on top of something that was already in existence. So there’s a lot of consistency [with] the medical laws and rules.

But [in matters like] open container regulations, there are different exceptions for medical patients. Even in terms of how you’re treated with regards to child custody status, medical patients get extra protection for their consumption. Even as you see cannabis policy develop, folks are going to try to differentiate — Oh, these folks are patients and these folks are consumers. And sometimes that’s going to make sense, and sometimes it’s not going to make sense.

People may have voted for, yes, you can walk into a store and buy it — but I don’t want that store in my neighborhood. How does Los Angeles deal with that part of it, which had to do with medical marijuana as well?

A lot of residents have very genuine concerns about their experience with a proliferation of unregulated, illicit, unlicensed businesses. We’re going to take a very inclusive and community-centered approach, where we require businesses to have neighborhood liaisons. If there’s a complaint, someone can be reached immediately to address that complaint.

What is the LAPD worried about as this rolls out?

They’ll primarily be responsible for enforcement against unlicensed businesses — and there are a lot of unlicensed [cannabis] businesses in the city. It’s going to be my department, the city attorney and the LAPD working together, kind of as this enforcement trio, either against licensed businesses who are not in compliance, or unlicensed businesses who need to shut down.

The LAPD, of course, is going to have different concerns about how they police communities and individuals, because everything’s not legal. There are still possession limits, there are still restrictions on where you can consume — all of these issues could pose public safety concerns.

Is there a public misunderstanding, that they think anybody can sell and now anyone can smoke at any time, like in the workplace — “you can’t fire me, it’s legal to smoke marijuana now”?

Yes, there’s truly been a lack of information, and I think that it’s part of my responsibility to try to disseminate as much information as possible. People think they can consume outside, people don’t necessarily understand that consuming cannabis can be the very reason that keeps them from being employed, [or] if they are living in certain types of housing that they can be kicked out of their housing because of their cannabis use; they can be denied certain public benefits.

These are policy questions and decisions that still have to be made. Even at the state level, the regulations haven’t been fully developed yet. There’s this timeline, these parallel timelines where the city is setting up its regulatory framework and the state is setting up its regulatory framework, and there are going to be some hiccups along the way. But we’re going to do our best to make sure that the community has access to this information. Things change literally every single day. I learn something new on this job every single day.

What is your calendar right now? What things need to be done on what schedule?

It’s all up in the air. Licensing of the applications is going to be made at the state level no later than January 2. We do have here in Los Angeles a number of folks who have been in business since 2007 who operate retail locations for medical marijuana, and in order for them to be able to continue their operations, they’re going to have to have some type of local authorization or permit or license before January 2. So part of my responsibility in working with other departments is to make sure that those individuals can continue to operate while the state is figuring out its framework.

There was a tussle over how many medical marijuana operations were permitted. Maybe the past experience will be instructive in this for you.

Right; I don’t think the city of Los Angeles has ever truly understood the size of the cannabis market here.

How big is it?

I’m still figuring it out! The size of the licensing and legal market has to meet the demand. Otherwise the demand is going to be met with illicit supply. There has to be a process of understanding what’s the demand, and we need to make sure we’re issuing enough licenses to meet that demand.

Are the people who are licensed to grow and sell going to be cooperating in policing the illegal market now?

I’ve heard from many industry participants from other jurisdictions that the legal cannabis industry becomes best friends with the folks who are doing the enforcement, to share information about folks who aren’t licensed, because essentially it cuts into their business profit. If you have a licensed dispensary who’s had to pay tens of thousands of dollars to get their facility up and running, and then you have someone next door who hasn’t paid any of those fees, I do think that you’re going to see licensed cannabis businesses sharing information relative to illegal activity in the city.

Can cities say no to marijuana outlets completely?

Absolutely. Local governments have complete authority to ban commercial cannabis activity in their city. They can’t ban personal cultivation, they can’t ban indoor personal cultivation, they can’t stop a business from driving on your street as it gets to wherever it’s going, but you can essentially stop delivery to your municipality.

I’m sure you’ve heard some lame jokes on your job, and I’ve tried a couple today. Are there any good ones? What are the bad ones?

This is a joke that I’d like to play on folks: I think that around Christmastime, when there’s an opportunity for folks to bring snacks, I’m just going to bring a plate of brownies and let folks know that they’re from the department of cannabis regulation and see if anyone is brave enough to try the brownies. Or if they will assume …

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