Two decades ago, Californians voted to become the first state in the nation to allow use of medical marijuana. A cannabis trade now worth billions of dollars sprouted, linking growers in the famed Emerald Triangle and those closer to home on the North Coast with dispensaries and consumers buying an ever wider array of pot products.
Still, the drug remains illegal for recreational use, a prohibition that will end if voters pass Proposition 64 on Nov. 8. While the measure leads in the polls, with up to 60 percent of likely voters favoring approval, the pot industry is deeply split, eyeing Colorado’s experience and those of three other West Coast states — Oregon, Washington and Alaska — where pot is legal.
Cannabis advocates, entrepreneurs and lawmakers from Sonoma County have stepped into the debate, wrestling with how to promote, legitimize and govern a trade with growing sway and impact on our lives.
Here, meet some of the people shaping the future of the marijuana industry on the North Coast.
Though voter approval of Proposition 64 on Nov. 8 would put an end to marijuana prohibition in California, state Sen. Mike McGuire predicts it will take at least 10 years to redress the rampant illegal cultivation, violent crime and environmental damage wrought by a largely unregulated pot industry over the past two decades.
Since 1996, when California voters approved use of marijuana for medical purposes, state lawmakers maintained a “head in the sand” approach that “put our communities in harm’s way,” said McGuire, who said he saw the fallout during his tenure as a Sonoma County supervisor.
Elected in 2014 to the North Coast Senate district that encompasses the pot-rich Emerald Triangle, McGuire, a Healdsburg Democrat, said he recognized that if he did not act legislators from urban areas with less ties to pot production would set the agenda.
As one of the authors of the landmark medical cannabis law approved last year and scheduled for implementation in 2018, McGuire said he will vote against Proposition 64. He favors legalization, but said the proposed law is coming before the state has a handle on medical cannabis. He also faulted it for allowing marijuana gardens of unlimited size, starting in 2023.
That would “blow the lid off” protections for the small, family pot farmers who make up the backbone of the North Coast industry, McGuire said. The medical cannabis law limits outdoor grows to one acre.
The proposition’s 15 percent sales tax on marijuana will pour hundreds of millions of dollars into a state fund, but includes no direct revenue stream to local government, McGuire said. North Coast cities and counties will be at a disadvantage competing with larger jurisdictions for grants from the fund, he said.
The measure allows cities and counties to enact their own marijuana taxes.
On the plus side, Proposition 64 would transform the marijuana industry by establishing “seed-to-sale tracking” of every pound of pot moving from garden to warehouse to dispensary, McGuire said.
“This brings incredible transparency to the industry,” he said, and — paired with a permitting system for all cannabis businesses — would promote public safety.
But implementation will take time, McGuire said, asserting it will take five years to bring 40 to 60 percent of the growers and other businesses into the regulatory system and it “will be tough” to get the remaining 40 percent.
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