California’s next cannabis battle may be coming to a city near you
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Working regular overnight shifts has distorted Samantha Kadera’s sleep schedule, so the emergency room doctor smokes cannabis a few times a week to relax before bed.
It’s a common habit among the young parents that Kadera knows in Manhattan Beach, the upscale Los Angeles suburb where she moved last year to raise her two elementary school-aged children in a more family-friendly environment.
But there are no dispensaries in the city; officials banned them five years ago after voters legalized recreational cannabis in California, concerned about attracting criminal activity and advertising aimed at minors. So Kadera stops at a store on her way to and from the Westside L.A. hospital where she works.
Changes loom if Manhattan Beach residents approve an initiative this fall to allow as many as two licensed cannabis businesses. It has triggered an increasingly acrimonious battle between a local entrepreneur eager to gain a foothold in a fresh market and city leaders determined to protect what they see as the character of their community.
“They do like to keep us in a bubble,” Kadera, 40, said one evening as she strolled with her dog along the Strand, a beachside path lined with multimillion-dollar homes. “But the reality is, there’s widespread use, so it would be nice to have it around here.”
Rapidly shifting attitudes — and a nascent legal industry still struggling to stabilize itself — have thrust cannabis back onto ballots across the state, six years after voters approved Proposition 64 to authorize Californians who are at least 21 years old to buy, grow and use it for recreational purposes.
A provision in that 2016 measure gave local governments discretion to ban cannabis businesses — and the vast majority of them did. More than 60% of cities and counties do not allow retail sales, according to the state, and while most of California’s most populous places do permit dispensaries, there are strict limits in many of them.
Desperate to expand where they can operate and to compete with a still-dominant illicit market, many in the cannabis industry have pushed state leaders to override Prop. 64 and open the entirety of California to retail sales.
But it’s a nonstarter at the state Capitol, where local control generally rules the day. A bill this session that would have only required local governments to permit medical cannabis businesses was quickly scaled back to a guarantee for patient access to delivery options.
So frustrated cannabis users and companies are turning their attention to the local level, launching municipal campaigns to pry open the holdouts, one at a time.
‘Voters have lost their patience’
Hirsh Jain, founder of the cannabis consulting firm Ananda Strategy, has tracked about two dozen cities over the past year — from Red Bluff to Sausalito to Santee — where citizen initiative drives are qualifying for the ballot or pressuring local officials to develop their own ordinances to regulate and tax cannabis sales.
“The ballot initiative is a way to get the elected officials to stare reality in the face that their citizens want this,” Jain said, pointing to a fall 2019 poll from the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies that found public support for legal cannabis had only increased since Prop. 64. Nearly two-thirds of respondents favored allowing commercial dispensaries in their communities.
“Voters have lost their patience,” he said. “They might be willing to cut their elected officials some slack, but after a while, they’re going to take matters into their own hands.”
Enter Elliot Lewis, a self-described “motherf—ing hustler to the core” and the founder of Catalyst Cannabis Co., which operates 11 dispensaries, mainly in Southern California. He and fellow executives at the company are aggressively pursuing a strategy to force their way into cities that continue to ban retail cannabis sales.
They have funded initiatives to require dispensary licenses in Manhattan Beach and three of its neighbors in the South Bay — Redondo Beach, Hermosa Beach and El Segundo — which each represent a crown jewel of the untapped legal cannabis market: wealthy and touristy, with a voter base that firmly backed Prop. 64. Voters in all four cities will get a chance to weigh in on permitting cannabis sales in either November or next March.
In his profane and zealous style — alternately hilarious and intimidating — Lewis defends his approach as more than a business venture. It is a political statement, a frontal assault on the principle of local control that he believes the “Karens and Chadwick Moneybags” who run city governments worship with Biblical reverence, often flouting the will of their own constituents.