Venezia: Pot: a politically unifying topic?

A Cannabis Chamber of Commerce?

That's what kicked off July 17 at Skosh Monahan's in Costa Mesa.


Now if you're thinking it was a bunch of hippie stoners sitting around a restaurant run by a conservative councilman, think again.

The Alliance for Responsible Medicinal Access (ARMA), which is a "a trade association dedicated to ensuring responsible, legal access to medicinal cannabis for patients and to promoting the common business interests of our members," put on the event.


The group advocates "for clear, reasonable laws, and we steer our members to success in this rapidly evolving industry," the website says.

"Orange County needs a local trade association," says former city Planning Commissioner Jim Fitzpatrick, who is now a marijuana industry consultant and an ARMA board member. The industry needs "standing when interfacing with municipalities."

ARMA is a fairly new San Diego-based organization, and Fitzpatrick says this was its first Orange County event.

Pati Cakes, the self-proclaimed "Queen of Cannabis Baking in OC" and host of Hemp Radio's weekly podcast, attended the event. She said the "flavor of the crowd was very professional," and she was "impressed with the caliber of people" in attendance.

"Like any good networking meeting, you're able to weed through and meet the people you need to," she quips.

Fitzpatrick tells me ARMA has had "success encouraging San Diego to develop best-of-breed municipal ordinances and intelligent implementation" and has been an advisor to the City Council, city staff and the city attorney there.

What was the event like at Monahan's?

Pati Cakes says most of the people she met were L.A.- or San Diego-based, but some were from the OC cannabis community, like Kandice Hawes, founder and director of Orange County NORML, a branch of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

Folks mingled, exchanging business cards and chatting as they enjoyed appetizers and beverages. They also heard brief remarks from Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Costa Mesa), who supports legalizing marijuana.

Costa Mesa Councilman Gary Monahan, owner of the restaurant, says medical marijuana will be a major election issue in 2016.

Readers may remember he tried to put together a local ordinance legalizing and regulating dispensaries but garnered little support from fellow council members.

And speaking of 2016, already-declared Costa Mesa council candidate Lee Ramos, who lost a bid in 2014, was among the guests that night, saying he came with "an open mind."

"I am very much a champion of people's rights to decide for themselves what is best for them," he says. "During the last campaign, I visited many adults (who) expressed their views on the use of cannabis. I was surprised how many were knowledgeable, and to what extent they go to buy cannabis for medical use. I realize that this issue has many proponents on each side, but as a candidate I believe it is my responsibility to be as informed as possible."

About 75 people attended, about double that of the recent San Diego networking events, says Fitzpatrick.

"Clearly there is demand for such a trade association in Orange County," he says.

There are plans for a September event, which might be held at a bigger venue.

Also in September, ARMA plans to hold a marijuana tax panel, based on the success of one in San Diego.

"The Board of Equalization and Franchise Tax Board thought the first event was beneficial and are encouraging us to do it again," Fitzpatrick says of California's tax collectors.

But Pati Cakes, who has been in the medical cannabis baking business since 2010, says no real progress for patients can be made until the federal government legalizes marijuana. Local municipalities are hesitant to go against federal law.

Monahan just might be right in saying 2016 will be a pivotal political year for cannabis, the new economic green rush. Forbes recently reported that 51% of Americans favored pot legalization. And a recent New York magazine article says, "Fully 58% of Americans believe pot will be legal nationwide in the next 20 years."

The Forbes article also explained that legalization could take away as much as $10 billion from drug cartels and that pot is the second most-profitable cash crop in the United States after corn. Take a look Colorado, which Forbes estimates could see a windfall of $40 million in tax revenue generated by legalization of medical and recreational marijuana this year alone.

Now that investment-banking firms and publicly traded corporations are getting into this industry and legitimizing it, the political conversation about both medical and recreational marijuana will be at the forefront with politicians and voters in 2016.

If nothing else, Colorado has proved that cannabis is gold for cash-strapped governments. A monthly networking meeting of ARMA in Orange County seems timely as those involved in the local pot biz gear up for legalization.

So there you have it: conservatives becoming liberal thinkers — at least when it comes to weed. Who would have guessed cannabis would be their commonality?

BARBARA VENEZIA lives in Newport Beach. She can be reached at