After months of ordinance writing, rewriting, vote taking and report making, the selection of Oakland’s cannabis dispensary owners came down to Ping-Pong balls.
The rattling spheres inside a bingo cage in City Hall’s council chambers Wednesday determined which 32 individuals would have their dreams crushed and which lucky four would get the chance to open a lucrative cannabis shop this year.
The televised lottery took one nail-biting hour, as applicants and their business partners, friends and family sat in the gallery, hoping their assigned Ping-Pong ball wouldn’t be plucked from the metal cage until the very end — the final four were the winners.
“I’m uber excited. Praise Yahweh. Hallelujah,” said Alphonso Blunt Jr., one of the four lottery winners. “This is a long time coming. I’ve been trying to get a club since 2001.”
The drawing was one half of a two-track system for getting a license to open a brick-and-mortar dispensary in Oakland. The lottery was reserved for what the city terms “equity applicants” — those who make below a certain threshold of income and either have lived for 10 of the past 20 years in particular neighborhoods or had been convicted of a cannabis-related crime in Oakland in the past two decades.
Another four permits were available for those who don’t qualify for the program. These “general applicants” were chosen using a point system that rewarded plans based on security, operations, odor mitigation, neighborhood beautification, local ownership and local hiring. Applicants also got points if they promised to buy cannabis products from equity businesses or give them free rent or real estate.
Prospective equity businesses could apply under the general category, too, and got points for the status. Ultimately, six of the eight permit offers went to equity applicants. Seven of the eight businesses are owned by Oakland residents.
The eight finalists — from a pool of more than 100 hopefuls — have 90 days to secure a location for their dispensary, which is subject to a public hearing. If all goes according to plan, the eight will get permits.
Oakland already has eight grandfathered dispensaries in operation, including Harborside and Blum. The new permits would bring the total authorized dispensaries in Oakland to 16 this year.
There are no limits on how many non-dispensary cannabis businesses can operate in Oakland, such as lab testing, cultivation and distribution.
“I just wished they would’ve picked a different way to do it — actually gone through the application process,” said Eugene Hamilton, 42, one of those who didn’t win the lottery, as he left City Hall. “It’s kind of luck of the draw.”
Hamilton, who runs a T-shirt business and day care center in the city, said he had designed floor plans for his dispensary and already had a location in mind. He said he’ll try to get a permit in Santa Monica or Pleasant Hill.
“It’s highly disappointing. We were just so close,” said Jerry Bui, whose Ping-Pong ball was one of six left in the cage before it was drawn. “To get to that point and realize that we didn’t get it was just heartbreaking.”
Greg Minor, a city staffer who oversees the cannabis permit process, said the lottery was the fairest way of selecting winners.
“Most processes, in terms of competitive processes, tend to be biased toward those with the most resources to hire the consultants and lawyers to kind of paint a really pretty picture about what they’re going to do in the future, especially when there’s subjective criteria,” he said.
For that reason, Minor said, the general application process gave more weight to “objective and verifiable” questions.
Shop talk broke out as soon as the lottery was finished, with the losing business people approaching the victors to see if they could strike some kind of deal. They offered business cards, site scouting expertise and partnership proposals.
“Nerve-wracking. Amazing. Incredible,” said Amber Senter after realizing her group’s Ping-Pong ball was one of the four left in the cage.
A few men approached her and asked if she had won. She said yes. They encouraged her to get in touch if she has trouble finding a building.