Year in Review: North Coast braces for change as marijuana industry stakes out legal future
California was not first this time, but with a clear majority at the ballot box, Golden State voters in November opted to join the lead wave of states that have legalized recreational marijuana, setting in motion fundamental change for the growing cannabis industry that is likely to transform Sonoma County and the North Coast.
The approval of Proposition 64 - favored by 59 percent of Sonoma County voters and 57 percent statewide - punctuated a year marked by the clear emergence of cannabis commerce as a local economic force and industry advocates as key players in the contentious discussions shaping regulation of the once-illicit trade.
“It’s been a fantastic year of transformation and transition,” said Craig Litwin, a Sebastopol consultant to cannabis organizations. The industry is already worth billions of dollars, and Litwin said the California mandate reflects the drug’s wider acceptance, part of what he contends is a global shift in attitude.
Most people now “see marijuana as a substance they are comfortable with,” he said.
In Sonoma County, though, that point appears unsettled, as residents and local governments grappled with the industry’s emergence this year in contradictory ways.
Two months before Santa Rosa opened a wide swath of the city to cannabis processors, police officers helped shut the state’s largest legal cannabis manufacturing operation over a series of code violations. The firm, CannaCraft, operating out of a nondescript Circadian Way business park, re-opened last month with the city’s blessing just as a widening field of entrepreneurs eye Sonoma County - located between the famed Emerald Triangle growing region and millions of potential Bay Area customers - as an ideal place to set up shop as a cannabis business.
Yet the county, in a closely-watched vote last month by the Board of Supervisors, banned commercial cultivation of medical marijuana on rural parcels, siding with residents who said such activity despoiled their neighborhoods. The county’s nine cities have imposed their own limits on the cannabis trade, many of them prohibiting commercial cultivation. Only Santa Rosa, Sebastopol and Cotati allow medical marijuana dispensaries.
In Mendocino County, voters went even further this year, soundly rejecting a bid by the industry to set its own rules, which would have allowed cultivation on all rural lands and an unlimited number of licensed cannabis businesses.
Meanwhile, the specter of violence continued to shadow the marijuana industry, with two men fatally shot and a woman seriously wounded in the deadliest incident of the year, during a pot deal at a rural Sebastopol home in October. Since 2013, seven of the 26 people murdered in Sonoma County died during marijuana deals, a statistic that continues to make local law enforcement, elected officials and many residents wary of the loosely governed trade.
Sonoma County has struggled to bring the booming marijuana business - a “green rush” many liken to California’s original Gold Rush - into the civic mainstream, acknowledged Supervisor James Gore. A single pot crop can be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, but because of federal law, that cash that can’t be deposited in banks, making marijuana a uniquely volatile commodity, Gore said.
“It’s a brave new world and in many ways it’s still the Wild West,” Gore said.
Proposition 64 passes
The passage of Proposition 64 was the thunderbolt that many will remember from 2016.
It gave about 28 million adults 21 years and older the right to possess up to an ounce of pot and cultivate up to six plants for personal use.
It laid the groundwork for a regulated, commercial pot industry that could be worth more than $6 billion by 2020, making weed one of California’s top agricultural products. State and local marijuana taxes authorized by the measure are expected to reap as much as $1 billion a year in revenue.
The measure came 20 years after Californians sanctioned medical marijuana use for adults, opening up a limited legal footing for a black-market crop that would nonetheless remain targeted by law enforcement raids and banned under federal law.
California twice before had rejected marijuana legalization, the last time in 2010. But consensus grew that de-facto prohibition wasn’t working, prompting cannabis advocates to band together with influential business and political leaders to make 2016 the year it would end.
“The time has come,” said North Coast Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, in July, forecasting success of the ballot measure championed by Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, a front-runner in the 2018 governor’s race, and bankrolled by tech entrepreneur Sean Parker.
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