Brave New World: Legal Pot Sales Begin in Sonoma County (Press Democrat)


THE PRESS DEMOCRAT | January 1, 2018: An end to cannabis prohibition has arrived in California, and the best advice around for newcomers involves moderation. In other words, don’t eat the whole cookie.

Starting Monday, adults can buy cannabis without physician recommendations at some dispensaries in the state. In Sonoma County, the doors are opening to anyone 21 and older at two dispensaries in Sebastopol and a third in Cotati.

Jan. 1 is the start of a new era for California’s projected $7 billion cannabis marketplace — the nation’s largest — one being reshaped by taxes and bureaucracy, shedding the trappings of its outlaw roots. On the North Coast, officials and industry leaders hope to capitalize on the Emerald Triangle’s historic role as the state’s prime cannabis-growing region built over generations.

“The era of Prohibition is over. The voice of the voter won the day and recreational cannabis will now be legal,” said State Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, whose North Coast district runs from the Golden Gate Bridge to the Oregon border. “This is going to be the largest cannabis market in North America that has been brought out of the shadows and into the light of a regulated system.”

Since November 2016 when voters passed Prop. 64, adults have been able to lawfully consume pot for nonmedical uses. Monday is the first day when adults can walk into a store and buy it.

Marijuana’s legalization will invite a new consumer unfamiliar with the various ways to ingest it, and to the different effects. It’s easy to overdo it for the uninitiated, especially with cannabis-infused edibles like cookies.

Many dispensaries across California will be forced to turn customers without medical marijuana recommendations away until the stores receive state-issued temporary licenses for adult-use sales. Shops in Santa Rosa and unincorporated Sonoma County don’t yet have permission. SPARC/Peace in Medicine and Solful in Sebastopol and Mercy Wellness in Cotati are open for non medical sales today.

cannabisCalifornia expects to rake in an estimated $1 billion in taxes each year from cannabis businesses. In Sonoma County, officials are anticipating $3.6 million in revenue from new cannabis business taxes in the fiscal year that ends in June. That figure is about $300,000 less than earlier estimates before the destructive October fires damaged about 110,000 square feet of crops in the county.

For those involved in the industry, Jan. 1 is monumental and full of mixed emotions.

“There are some winners and losers in the way the money moves, the way the business is taking shape,” said Erich Pearson, founder of SPARC dispensary in San Francisco, which has taken over Peace in Medicine in Santa Rosa and Sebastopol. “But at the end of the day, we’re going to have fewer people in jail, specifically people from communities of color disproportionately affected by the drug war.”

Activists long banging the drum, and fighting battles in court, to get people with AIDS and cancer the right to use cannabis worry the recreational market may make it harder for truly ill people to access affordable marijuana. Entrepreneurs determined to legitimize the production of California’s most lucrative crop say the cost of complying with new rules and taxes will lead many businesses to fail.

The cost for one-eighth ounce of dried cannabis flower could rise about 40 percent, at least initially, at some dispensaries from excise and sales taxes before large-scale production pushes prices down. In Cotati, Mercy Wellness founder Brandon Levine said the tax on a one-eighth ounce of dried flower will more than double, raising the total from about $28 to nearly $40.

The breadth of inventory on the shelves may decrease while cultivators, tincture makers, extract makers and others apply for licenses. Over time, the type of longtime cultivator growing cannabis in extra rooms or tucked-away gardens may gradually give it up as corporate farms gain traction.

In 1996, California voters passed Proposition 215 decriminalizing medical marijuana’s use. San Francisco activist Dennis Peron, 72, helped write the voter initiative and is credited with founding the movement, one that was closely tied to the AIDS epidemic and the way cannabis eased symptoms of the disease.

“I am glad to see it legalized in my lifetime,” said Peron, who has been arrested many times for possession and cultivation. “That was my goal 50 years ago. America moves slowly, but it moves.”

Until now, the state had no regulations for marijuana’s production, sale or distribution, adding to decadeslong tension between cultivators and law enforcement. And with marijuana production so prolific on the North Coast, robbery and violence have been closely tied to its production. Legal or not, it’s a cash industry. Most banks, federally insured, won’t work with cannabis businesses because of the threat of a costly audit.

California is the eighth state to enable marijuana’s recreational use and commerce. Another 21 states allow some degree of medical use. But marijuana is still illegal under federal law, and considered a controlled substance without recognized health benefit.

Last year, California produced at least 13.5 million pounds of cannabis, but only consumed an estimated 2.5 million pounds. The rest, presumably, left the state.

“It’s the violence that it brings that is the greatest concern to me, together with increased use and people getting behind the wheel to drive,” Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch said. “I don’t think that danger will in any way be reduced by virtue of the legalization of marijuana in California alone, unfortunately.”

Without the availability of federal funding because of marijuana’s status in federal laws, too few studies have been done to determine precisely how to measure cannabis intoxication, Ravitch said. She hopes that will change.

Cal NORML, a cannabis advocacy and lobbying group, Friday publicly urged people against driving while high, and offered information like the delayed-effect of eating cannabis-infused foods, which can take one or two hours to take effect. Smartphone applications like My Canary or DRUID can help people decide whether they are impaired, according to Cal NORML.

In the coming year, McGuire said his top priority will be pushing tweaks to state regulations to ensure the cannabis regulations achieve the state’s primary goal: bringing cannabis operators into the legal marketplace.

McGuire will also be proposing rules allowing for cannabis tourism, which many anticipate as a major draw for the North Coast.

“My hope, if we do this right, is that people will flock here from around the country as they already do for world class Sonoma County wine,” said McGuire. “The North Coast grows the most premium cannabis in the country.”

This year will be a painful transition period for many involved in cannabis trying to meet the costly regulatory hurdles, from building ADA compliant facilities to paying new taxes in order to become a legitimate cannabis business, said Santa Rosa attorney and former city council member Erin Carlstrom. Carlstrom is now part of a four-person cannabis team at Dickenson Peatman & Fogarty, a firm that for about 50 years has focused on the alcohol industry.

“Jan. 1 represents a huge disruption. No one is lawfully able to do business unless they have their state temporary license, and there are so few people across the state who have that in contrast to the number of operators out there,” Carlstrom said.

But there are expected to be thousands of first-time and novice users. Mitcho Thompson of Sebastopol has for more than a decade been teaching people what he knows about how to consume marijuana, and the biggest lesson is to start small. In 2014 when marijuana sales began in Colorado, the Council on Responsible Cannabis Regulation launched a “First Time 5” campaign to educate novice consumers about dosage and tolerance.

“You can’t actually OD on it,” said Mitcho Thompson, vice president of the Americans for Safe Access’ Sonoma County chapter, said. “It could give you a very bad panic attack though because plants do that.”

Seniors are the fastest-growing demographic of people coming into most dispensaries, said Thompson, a former community liaison with SPARC in Sebastopol.

In a community room at Santa Rosa’s Oakmont community in October, Thompson had more than 70 members of the Oakmont Cannabis Club examining dried buds with a magnifying glass to show them the shining trichomes and other parts of the plant. It was the club’s third meeting since a community vote allowed them to form in June, and members asked questions about how to use it for issues like arthritis, back pain and insomnia.

He told them about a 72-year-old woman who purchased a ginger granola bar from the medical marijuana dispensary in the hopes it would help her manage pain and stop using a prescribed narcotic. Later, she called the dispensary to say she had eaten the entire bar and was feeling incredibly anxious.

“I said, “Eat ice cream and watch cartoons, you will be fine,” Thompson said. “She did. She called back later and said she was OK.”

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or [email protected]. On Twitter @jjpressdem.


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