In California, Learning How Marijuana Is An Unlikely Divider

Photo Credit: Jim Wilson

My reporting beat at The Times is Northern California, so when I drove into Compton, outside of Los Angeles, it was unfamiliar territory. Jim Wilson, the San Francisco bureau photographer, and I had flown down to report a story about the different approaches cities were taking to marijuana legalization.

Previously, I had reported on the industrialization of marijuana in California; a community of ethnic Hmong farmers; and the reluctance of cannabis growers to come out of the shadows after legalization — only around 10 percent have signed up for a license.

This time, the story I ended up writing compared attitudes in Compton, where residents voted in January by a 3-to-1 margin to ban marijuana businesses from the city, with Oakland, Calif., a city that has embraced marijuana legalization as a way to generate tax revenue and help those who were disproportionately affected by the war on drugs.

I found it fascinating that the two cities, both of which had struggled for decades with an illicit drug problem and some of the violent crime associated with it, had diverged so sharply. It was as if they had been asked the same question and come up with completely different answers.

Our reporting in Compton took us to some predictable places, like City Hall. But we also had some unplanned stops, like the tennis courts where Serena and Venus Williams practiced as kids.

While writing, I wondered what kind of details I should publish about the previous lives of people in the marijuana industry. Virgil Grant, one of the article’s subjects, told me stories about how he would sell marijuana from his family grocery store in Compton in the 1980s and 1990s by putting the weed in empty boxes of Lucky Charms. He mentioned, without much elaboration, that would-be competitors in Compton regretted going up against him.

It’s an awkward and confusing transition period in the marijuana industry. What was illegal yesterday in California may be legal today, but that’s of course not the way the federal government sees it. Mr. Grant has spent time in both federal and state prisons.

Since legalization of recreational sales came into effect in California in January, there have been stories about cities and counties that banned marijuana. But I had never seen reporting on the bigger picture. So I reached out to a company called Weedmaps, a website that hosts online reviews of cannabis businesses.

When they added it up, the data surprised me: Only 14 percent of California’s cities and towns authorize the sale of recreational marijuana. By contrast, Proposition 64, the ballot measure that allowed marijuana legalization, passed with 57 percent voter approval in 2016, a seemingly solid majority.

The low acceptance of marijuana businesses strikes me as part of the liberal, not-in-my-backyard paradox in California. Yes, Californians want shelters for the homeless, but just not across the street. Yes, Californians want more housing built, but not if it changes the character of the neighborhood. A marijuana dispensary? Sure, preferably in the next town.

It’s still early days — it’s been less than three months since legal sales started — but for now the trend is that larger cities like Oakland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Sacramento and San Diego are the hubs of the marijuana industry, while smaller cities and towns are ambivalent or outright hostile to the idea of opening marijuana dispensaries. Orange County, in Southern California, is a recreational marijuana desert, with only a handful of dispensaries allowed.

California has a reputation for very tolerant attitudes toward pot, and it’s the biggest consumer and producer of the drug in the United States by a wide margin. It is also the nation’s premier exporter to other states: By one estimate, the state produces seven times more than it consumes.

But the visit to Compton helped peel back another, more conservative set of attitudes toward marijuana.

At the Compton airport, Shawn Wildgoose, a former enlisted Marine who lives in Compton and works in the construction industry, told me he wanted to see the city focusing on its homeless problem and reducing crime, which is sharply down from previous decades.

Legal marijuana?

“Compton has other issues,” Mr. Wildgoose said. “We don’t need that distraction.”