Let’s face it, there are few other places in the country, let alone the world, where you can hit up a legal pot shop, grab a few prerolls, head down to some empty corner of the beach and light up a fat one on the sand.
The experience of living in L.A. can at times feel so foreign to the rest of the country — what with U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ antiquated Reefer Madness propaganda among a collection of other backward politics originating far from the Golden State of mind — that California often feels like its own stand-alone nation. Heck, there’s even a Calexit campaign, though it’s likely too small to be anything greater than a cute idea.
California’s cultural-political dissonance from the rest of America, however, can obscure moments when we must decide whether to heed the whims of the federal government, or merely to keep calm and toke on.
President Donald Trump’s latest curveball — a deal with Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) to support policies protecting the cannabis industry in legal states — harkens back to his campaign trail promise to respect states’ rights. Now the question becomes, how should California’s weed industry react to the news?
“The country is beyond the tipping point for cannabis, and it’s great to hear a reflection of that from the White House, but it doesn’t change how we counsel clients,” says cannabis licensing attorney Ariel Clark. “Because does the announcement really mean anything? It’s not a change in policy.” Until cannabis is re- or de-scheduled, or until there is a written law protecting green states, anything else can be seen as empty rhetoric.
L.A.’s cannabis industry is reacting to Trump’s statement “with a grain of salt,” Clark says. “The whole country is trying to navigate the policy-by-tweet ethos of this White House; L.A.’s cannabis operators are no different.”
Investors who like risk, on the other hand, seem to have taken to the roller-coaster ride of the Trump administration’s vagaries. Typically, anytime there’s negative news for the cannabis industry, such as Sessions’ threats to crack down on legal states, investments take a plunge, says Jackie McGowan, director of licensing and business development in the cannabis division of K Street Consulting. But with Trump’s latest pot-positive statement, cannabis companies have actually been able to secure funding from investors, she says. “It’s happening for me and for other consultants and operators,” McGowan says. “It’s good to see that the gate is open again — we need more positive news like that.”
Yet Trump’s seemingly lenient rhetoric has had little influence on state and local pot regulations, especially in counties like San Bernardino that have taken a hard-line approach to licensing. On April 18, the San Bernardino City Council denied a temporary event permit for adult cannabis use to the High Times Cannabis Cup, meaning that the decades-old festival of 20,000 people would go weed-free on 4/20.
“Everyone has to be a hardass about following the rules,” Clark says. Any cannabis company that’s planning an event needs to meet local and state deadlines. In the case of the Cannabis Cup, San Bernardino took a hard-line approach to the rules, which require a 60-day notice before an event. Even with the potential permission from the California Bureau of Cannabis Control (BCC), the city decided not to bend that rule. The fact that the event was not canceled outright shows more a hard-line approach to following cannabis regulations, rather than an opposition to the cannabis industry at large, Clark adds. “Complying with every aspect of the law is what ‘legalization’ is all about.”
While there’s no way to be totally safe from federal prosecution, states and localities that practice more robust regulation may have greater immunity than those that don’t — when there are actually rules to follow, it’s easier to show you’re following the rules.
“We talked with the folks at High Times — we were doing everything we could to get them licensed,” says Alex Traverso, chief of communications at the BCC. “We wanted more than anything to look at and point to an event that went through the process, got the necessary permit and everything according to the letter.” But without local approval, any cannabis entity is crippled from getting state approval to operate as it may have wished.
“This is a small example of what’s been a larger issue for us the past couple years at all the events, public meetings, different cannabis industry gatherings — you can’t go to one without hearing from a number of people concerns about what the federal government is going to do,” Traverso says. So even when Trump mouths off in a way that seems to indicate some level of protection for cannabis-legal states, his rhetoric doesn’t resonate very deeply — nor should it.
San Bernardino’s hard-line approach juxtaposed with Trump’s pro-pot statement is ironic but altogether uninfluential at the state and local political levels. As Clark said, the only thing the cannabis industry can count on in order to function legally and to thrive is following the letter of the law, not spoken words. Goings-on at the federal level are out of the BCC’s and localities’ control — so when it comes to weed policy, enforcement and, more important, attitudes guiding both, California’s on its own to keep order.