Cannabis industry frets, then shrugs off Sessions' new policy

This June 27, 2017 file photo shows popcorn shaped marijuana nuggets in a plastic container at the Higher Path medical marijuana dispensary owned by Jerred Kiloh in Los Angeles. When U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions green-lighted federal prosecutors to pursue violators of federal marijuana laws, not only states that legalized recreational pot are at risk of a crackdown, but so is most of the rest of America. All but four states allow some form of medical marijuana, even Sessions' home state of Alabama. 

Voters in Napa County have said a resounding yes to legalized marijuana not once, but twice.

First, in 1996, the county electorate supported Proposition 215, allowing medicinal use of marijuana, by 59-41 percent, three percentage points higher than the state as a whole.

Then again in November 2016, Napa County came out in favor of Proposition 64, allowing for recreational use and sales, by a resounding 61-39 percent, four percentage points more than the statewide result.

Some of the people who voted for Proposition 64 in 2016 were not even born when Proposition 215 passed 20 years earlier, and yet Napa County still does not even have a medical marijuana dispensary, much less a recreational shop.

Medical marijuana users have been forced to travel to Santa Rosa or Vallejo to exercise their legal right to buy their medicine, just as recreational users must do now that Proposition 64 is fully in effect.

This represents an egregious, long-term failure of local officials to heed the will of their constituents.

Fortunately, this finally seems to be changing.

The city of Napa appears to have a solid majority on the City Council in favor of allowing at least medicinal dispensaries. Mayor Jill Techel has predicted the city will be home to at least one operational dispensary this year, with an eye toward allowing recreational sales thereafter.

County and municipal officials from the cities and towns, meanwhile, formed a “roundtable” last year to study the issue, look at models from other counties and cities that have successfully implemented Proposition 215, and try to formulate a common approach.

The Editorial Board met with two leaders of the roundtable this week – Supervisor Ryan Gregory, who suggested the county-wide approach in the first place, and Calistoga Mayor Chris Canning, whose city has had one of the valley’s more progressive debates on marijuana in recent years.

While we certainly wish an earlier generation of elected officials had acted on this issue years ago, we came away from the meeting feeling like things were finally moving in the right direction in terms of marijuana policy.

Gregory said that the supervisors are hoping to have an ordinance allowing private outdoor cultivation and possibly commercial production by the late spring. He said there has been enormous interest among business owners, including some in the county’s iconic wine business, to allow commercial production. The county is unlikely to permit dispensaries in unincorporated land, however, since most commercial property is inside the cities.

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In the cities, meanwhile, there has been active interest by entrepreneurs in opening dispensaries, both medicinal and recreational, Canning told us. Calistoga is considering allowing a dispensary, but it seems most likely that Napa will wind up the home to most or all of the county’s commercial sales establishments. This seems sensible since Napa is by far the county’s largest city and commercial hub.

The cities and towns are likely to be finished with their own ordinances regarding dispensaries and outdoor cultivation by the middle of the year, he predicted.

We are glad that there finally is some movement toward implementing the will of Napa County voters and we came away from our meeting with some reassurance that the issue is being dealt with systematically and thoughtfully by all the county’s jurisdictions.

In a bigger sense, we were also impressed by the roundtable process itself, a model that holds promise for solving the long-term distrust between cities and county. Too often the county and its five incorporated municipalities have operated in a disjointed, even mutually hostile manner, and this effort to coordinate on marijuana is a good omen for the future. Gregory and Canning said they see room for similar organized cooperation on issues such as housing.

We urge the supervisors and members of the city and town councils to move expeditiously to pass clear and comprehensive ordinances on marijuana. It is long past time for the voice of Napa County’s voters to be heard.

Editor's Note: This editorial has been modified from its original form to reflect the fact that the supervisors were still undecided about allowing commercial cannabis production when the editorial appeared.

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The Napa Valley Register Editorial Board consists of Publisher Brenda Speth, Editor Sean Scully, and public members Cindy Webber, Ed Shenk, Mary Jean Mclaughlin and Chris Hammaker.