Marijuana Industry Presses Ahead In California's Wine Country

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Katelyn Baker

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SANTA ROSA, Calif. – In the heart of Northern California's wine country, a civil engineer turned marijuana entrepreneur is adding a new dimension to the art of matching fine wines with gourmet food: cannabis and wine pairing dinners.

Sam Edwards, co-founder of the Sonoma Cannabis Company, charges diners $100 to $150 for a meal that experiments with everything from marijuana-leaf pesto sauce to sniffs of cannabis flowers paired with sips of a crisp Russian River chardonnay.

"It accentuates the intensity of your palate," Mr. Edwards, 30, said of the dinners, one of which was held recently at a winery with sweeping views of the Sonoma vineyards. "We are seeing what works and what flavors are coming out."

Sonoma County, known to the world for its wines, is these days a seedbed of cannabis experimentation. The approval of recreational cannabis use by California voters in November has spurred local officials here to embrace the pot industry and the tax income it may bring.

"We're making this happen," said Julie Combs, a member of the Santa Rosa City Council, who is helping lead an effort to issue permits to cannabis companies. "This is an industry that can really help our region."

Of the many ways in which California is on a collision course with the Trump administration, from immigration to the environment, the state's enthusiastic embrace of legalized and regulated marijuana may be one of the biggest tests of the federal government's power.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions has equated marijuana with heroin and, on Wednesday, mentioned cannabis in the context of the "scourge of drug abuse."

"I reject the idea that America will be a better place if marijuana is sold in every corner store," he said. "And I am astonished to hear people suggest that we can solve our heroin crisis by legalizing marijuana, so people can trade one life-wrecking dependency for another that's only slightly less awful."

To the ears of many in California and other states where marijuana use has been legalized to varying degrees, the stigma Mr. Sessions attaches to cannabis feels like a holdover from the distant past.

Marijuana, which has been legal for medicinal purposes in California for two decades, can be ordered online for home delivery in the state's largest cities. A former mayor of Oakland, Jean Quan, recently applied to open a marijuana dispensary in San Francisco.

The industry is already immense. Arcview, a company that conducts cannabis research, estimates that the California market alone is worth $7 billion.

America's divided views on cannabis have produced a strange and uneasy stalemate. Recreational use is legal in eight states, including all those along the West Coast. At the same time, state governments are watching closely for hints on what the Trump administration plans to do.

In the past, the federal authorities have destroyed fields and prosecuted growers. Federal law still calls for a minimum prison sentence of five years for growing more than 100 marijuana plants, although under the Obama administration, the law was enforced only in cases involving violence or gangs.

The White House spokesman, Sean Spicer, recently warned of the possibility of "greater enforcement" against recreational use of marijuana.

Those working in the industry are constantly reminded of the federal government's power to intervene in their business dealings, including severely limiting their access to the banking system.

"They can come in and ruin your whole life," said Mr. Edwards, the marijuana entrepreneur. "They can throw you in prison, take your property."

Yet, like so many others in the cannabis industry here – there are an estimated 9,000 growers in Sonoma County – Mr. Edwards is pressing ahead with his company, which specializes in growing and selling pesticide-free cannabis products. And he is planning more cannabis and wine pairing dinners.

"History favors the bold," he said.

His business's name, Sonoma Cannabis Company, makes no attempt to hide what industry he is in.

Some are skeptical that the Trump administration has the wherewithal to carry out a widespread crackdown on such a huge industry in America's most prosperous state.

"I think it's kind of doubtful right now, looking at the Trump administration," said Terry Garrett, a manager at Sustaining Technologies, a marketing company that researches the cannabis market in Sonoma County. "Let's see them do health care first, round up immigrants, build a wall."

Hezekiah Allen, the executive director of the California Growers Association, a cannabis industry group, said the mood among growers was a mixture of excitement and anxiety. Their primary concerns at the moment have more to do with local tax rates than possible federal intervention, he said.

A ballot measure that passed this month in Sonoma clears the way for the county to issue permits, a big step in bringing the industry out of the shadows.

The policy, known as Measure A, favors small-scale artisanal growers by taxing the acreage under cultivation rather than tonnage and by charging lower rates for smaller plots. But it also gives the county wide latitude to raise taxes without further voter approval.

Even at the lowest rates, state and county taxes add up to half the gross income of a typical grower, Mr. Allen said.

"At the highest rates, the tax would be a de facto prohibition," he said.

The combination of high taxes and the threat of federal intervention could push growers back underground, Mr. Allen and others say. And many regulations still need to be written before the full rollout of recreational marijuana in California.

"Generally speaking, I'm feeling encouraged," Mr. Allen said. "But it's a huge, huge experiment."

News Moderator: Katelyn Baker 420 MAGAZINE ®
Full Article: Marijuana Industry Presses Ahead In California's Wine Country
Author: Thomas Fuller
Contact: The New York Times
Photo Credit: Jim Wilson
Website: The New York Times


Member of the Month - March 2015 & September 2016
It's a reaccuring thought of my own; at what point will the greed of the taxing bodies push everyone underground again? It seems to have missed everyone that lower taxes collected on more produce is a better way to increase the coffers. Drop the tax rate, spur business growth, gain more gainfully employed, tax-paying citizens. Heal more people.