I was deep into my second or third joint of the afternoon, lounging on a green leather Moroccan pouf in the shade, when an elegant older blonde in a bright floral dress rushed up to declare that I was urgently needed on stage. It was Susan Soares, the beloved marijuana advocate and ringmaster of the day’s events: a casual and intimate southern California conference called The State of Cannabis, held a few weeks back and filled with pot insiders and political stakeholders. Apparently another journalist had flaked at the last minute, leaving a vacant spot on the final panel of the day: “Cannabis & the Media.” Baked as I was, could I go sit in front of a few hundred people and comment on what New York Media Elites talk about when they talk about weed?
Of course I could. Soares is the kind of affable, sincere person you just want to say yes to – even when you’re high as balls and not quite sure you’ll be able to form coherent sentences. And I tend to take the reason we had all come together – to do some soul-searching about the Golden State’s most valuable crop – rather seriously. Along with the usual cannabis entrepreneurs, investors, and activists, there were several mayors, prosecutors, and previously prohibitionist government types in attendance. But as the biggest marijuana market in the world barrels toward a January 1st, 2018 deadline to begin accepting applications for both medical and adult-use licenses, initiating what will likely be the final phase in the state’s bumpy two-decade journey toward legal pot, what is, in fact, the state of cannabis in California?
“Shitshow,” one prominent advocate told me. “But don’t mention my name. These edibles are starting to kick in.” Several other answers fell along the same lines: “Precarious.” “Disarray.” “Evolving.” “Complicated.” “Compartmentalized.” “Chaotic.” “Uncertainty.” “Clusterfuck.” “Capricious.”
The best thing anyone had to say? “Improving.”
So even as the state moves boldly toward the historic, progressive change of legalizing cannabis, the people who write the rules and the people who plan to follow them are rather uneasy. The trouble centers on a handful of key, unanswered questions. What are the final regulations going to look like? What is the best way to get cities and counties to stop dragging their feet and develop local permitting? Will the “equity” programs currently under discussion in Los Angeles and San Francisco do a fair job of accounting for the disproportionate enforcement of marijuana laws against people of color? Is big business about to elbow everyone else out of existence? And perhaps most importantly, are enough people going to leave the lucrative black and unregulated markets behind, and is the enormous experiment of marijuana legalization in California going to be successful?
It was a lot to consider. And it could get overwhelming, so anyone looking for a break from the policy-intensive panels and workshops could head out to the terrace for pot-infused charcoal and coconut cubes, mango-flavored cannabis elixirs and pre-rolled joints.
One attendee who was clearly overwhelmed but certainly not taking a break to get stoned was Lori Ajax, the chief of California’s Bureau of Cannabis Control, and one of the keynote speakers of the event. The former director of the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, Ajax has done her best in the year and a half since she was appointed to patiently sift through the many, many challenges she is facing as January 1st approaches. Most of the time she comes off as sunny but strained, as though she is carrying a bowl filled to the brim with water and walking very slowly so as not to spill any.
At one point during her speech, Ajax recalled this past spring’s public comment process on proposed regulations with all the enthusiasm of a grade school teacher.
“Great comments!” she said. “Those comments, to this day, are shaping our new regulations.” Yes, she was talking about the regulations that would take effect in January. Many businesses are understandably eager to see what those will look like. And when could people expect to see a copy?
“People keep telling me they’re going to be released any day now. They’re not,” Ajax said. “It’ll be late November.”
The most popular person at the conference was likely Cat Packer, the dapper young black woman recently appointed to run the Los Angeles Department of Cannabis Regulation. With over a thousand dispensaries, L.A. is the largest marijuana market on the planet, but the city is woefully behind in developing reasonable pot policy. For starters, none of those thousand-odd dispensaries have local permits, which all marijuana businesses will need before applying for state licenses.
Up until a few months ago, Packer had been working at the influential non-profit Drug Policy Alliance. Her hiring signaled that city council was serious about addressing the injustices of the war on drugs as they developed rules around legal weed.
“I’ve kind of gone from agitator to regulator,” she said during one panel, to laughter. It had been only six weeks since she started the job, and she still didn’t have a staff. “I ask that folks be patient.”
Packer’s comments about the disproportionate law enforcement experienced by communities of color received a fair amount of applause, but much of the marijuana industry – like much of the country – is still struggling with issues of race. After Packer’s panel, I was chatting with Isamarie Pérez, the ever-astute head of business development for pot software company Meadow, when a white man in a tan suit approached to say she had done a great job on the panel – confusing her for Packer, one of the only other women of color in the room. During another panel, as a black dispensary owner wearing a dashiki talked about the racial biases around marijuana use and arrests, two white people stood up and walked out.
Most entrepreneurs, after all, are worried primarily about themselves. Many believe that legalization means corporatization, and that their small businesses are not long for this world.
“Most of us are going away, and that’s the truth,” says a cultivator named Justin Calvino. “We’re competing with Goliath.”
Or, as the farmer Swami Chaitanya puts it: “We’re dead.”
Others were concerned about the ongoing lack of clarity over what exactly was legal, and when that would change.
“It only takes one rogue cop,” laments James Slatic, whose cannabis distribution company, Med-West, has faced raids, asset seizure, and criminal charges from the city of San Diego. Even his lawyer has somehow been arrested, in a nightmarish twist that left many spooked about the potential limits of attorney-client privilege.
Max Mikalonis, a consultant who previously worked as a legislative staffer on a crucial set of 2015 marijuana bills, expressed apprehension at the state’s recently announced “temporary license” system. Those with temporary licenses will only be allowed to work with other people who already have temporary licenses – a bizarre provision that could potentially create havoc for, say, manufacturers who work with dispensaries all across the state.
By 3:30 p.m., exhausted by all of the challenges ahead, I found refuge outside in a lounge space designed and hosted by Jessica Cure, the genial mastermind behind a popular cannabis farmer’s market event called Emerald Exchange. A woman in a suit eating a lollipop passed a joint to a former NFL player, who took a hit and then handed it to a British investor, who later told me cannabis in California reminded him of the corrupt emerging markets he’d seen in developing nations.
It was here that Soares found me stoned out of my gourd and asked if I could fill in on the media panel.
“Don’t be late for bong service, later,” Cure said, as I headed back inside. “You will not be disappointed.” It would like bottle service at a club, she explained, but with bongs and buds on a tray, along with various concentrates to sprinkle on top and essential oils to mix into the bong water to mask the smell.
“We’re trying to create an experience,” she said.
And yes, even though I was high and unprepared, the panel that I sat on went pretty well. Well, maybe I got a little combative at some points. But hey, what did you expect?
When things come together at the last minute, they tend to be a bit messy.