The new year brought a new legality for recreational marijuana in California. It also brought Alicia Rose’s cannabis business to a virtual halt.
True, Jan. 1 was the day that Proposition 64 took full effect more than a year after its approval by state voters. In many counties, sellers finally could offer marijuana products to any willing adult, not just those with doctors’ notes showing a medical need.
But Rose, who had started HerbaBuena three years earlier, would be left out in the cold. Despite efforts to bring her hand-rolled joints, cannabis elixirs, balms and supplements into the same Napa Valley where she once worked in the wine industry, the county had not yet begun issuing any permits to do business.
Under California’s emerging system to regulate the growing, processing and sale of marijuana, no local permit meant no state permits either – forcing the entrepreneur to suspend sales and all activities except cultivation, which is continuing in weed-friendly Mendocino County on the North Coast.
“We are trying to go from an illegal black market straight to a highly regulated product,” she said. “It’s no easy task.”
Paradoxes such as Rose’s – of cannabis businesses at least temporarily tripped up by the very laws meant to foster them – were at the forefront of the forum Monday night at the Napa County Library, organized by the Democrats of Napa Valley Club.
City and county leaders updated more than 50 spectators about local governments’ progress to carry out the will of the voters, while Rose and Eric Sklar, another local weed entrepreneur, pointed out the challenges that remain.
A package of three state bills passed in 2015 began the process of creating state oversight of marijuana cultivation, transport, sales and packaging, and the voter-passed Prop. 64 opened up sales beyond the medicinal uses California has allowed since 1996.
But full over-the-counter sales remain stuck in the starting blocks in counties like Napa that have yet to start issuing local licenses to growers and sellers, said Rose of HerbaBuena. With state licenses dependent on securing local ones first, she added, outfits such as hers risk breaking the law even for transporting more than an ounce of pot at a time.
“It would be like telling a winemaker he can’t bring a bottle of wine to dinner,” she told forum spectators. “I don’t want to feel like a criminal anymore; I’m done with it.”
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A still-unsettled regulatory field also has left Sklar, a vineyard owner and president of the state Fish and Game Commission, having to enter the Napa County market from the outside in. His company, Fumé Napa, will deliver cannabis products to wine-country customers but will grow the crop in Lake County.
“We want to make sure the way we grow cannabis improves the environment, and doesn’t degrade the environment,” Sklar, who also is helping launch the Napa Valley Cannabis Association advocacy group, said of California’s legalization drive – even though the effort includes tighter tracking of the product, even down to radio tracking of cannabis plants and products through the entire process.
Among the city and county officials at Monday’s forum, support for wider access still was accompanied by a desire not to push ahead too quickly.
Napa Mayor Jill Techel predicted the city – whose recently passed dispensary ordinance takes effect Thursday – will be home to at least one cannabis retailer by year’s end, selling to those with medical recommendations for the drug. The new city law restricts sales mainly to areas zoned for medical offices and light industry, but does not limit the number of businesses that may sell marijuana projects – unlike an earlier ordinance, shelved in 2013 over legal concerns, that would have empowered Napa to choose one applicant on a first-come, first-served basis.
Meanwhile, elected leaders from the Upvalley towns continued taking a cautious approach to embracing the cannabis economy, content to take lessons from the rollout of retailing to Napa and other larger cities before creating their own road maps.
Calistoga Mayor Chris Canning threw his support behind allowing more marijuana users to grow their own plants outside their homes as well as indoors. (Household outdoor cultivation, which Prop. 64 grants cities the power to allow or forbid, is capped at two plants per residence there and in St. Helena.)
But while Canning recalled fielding several offers from those seeking permits for marijuana sales and promising strong profits for Calistoga as well as themselves, he questioned the immediate need for every town in a county of only about 140,000 people to open their own outlets.
“First and foremost is public health and safety; second is the quality of life; and third will be the revenue,” he said of the town of just over 5,000 residents. “We’ll be happy to let other others bump their heads along the way.”
While legalized pot holds out the promise of fresh revenue for local governments, Napa County Supervisor Ryan Gregory cautioned that squeezing sellers too aggressively risks driving buyers back into the arms of unlicensed, unregulated sellers if taxation pushes prices for the legitimate product too high – especially with the state already taking a 15 percent excise tax off the top.
“There’s not a lot of margin left to tax it further without supporting the black market, without having people say ‘Well, it’s too expensive, so I’ll just go buy it from my friend who always has it,’” he said.