In 1996, California passed landmark legislation legalizing medicinal cannabis. In the ensuing 20 years, the state’s unregulated medical market exploded into arguably the largest cannabis economy in the world. In 2016, Californians voted to both legalize personal use as well as to create a regulated cannabis marketplace. California now has an opportunity to lead the nation in ending a failed drug war.
The legalization movement presents both challenges and opportunity. Cannabis legalization should minimize environmental harm, increase economic opportunity, and reduce criminal activity. Cannabis policy must also be implemented equitably, ensuring benefits to the less powerful, including rural communities and people of color.
California is both the oldest producer of medical cannabis and also a significant producer of outdoor and seasonally farmed cannabis. Over decades and generations, unregulated cannabis farms have proliferated in many rural areas of the state, creating economic opportunity and stability for those often underrepresented communities. Legacy farmers historically live on the land and are self-funded; any profits stay in the local community rather than funding outside corporate interests. That economic bedrock is now under threat.
Environmental stewardship is an essential component of effective cannabis policy. Cannabis operations are subject to environmental challenges in sensitive and remote watersheds. Trespass cultivation sites have been associated with illegal water diversions, the dumping of toxic products into watersheds, the illegal clearing of trees, and copious amounts of trash and human waste on wilderness lands. Bringing operations into environmental compliance requires funding and agency support within an achievable time frame. Cannabis cultivation should be required to meet the same standards as other agricultural operations, such as vineyards.
Economic justice for all remains elusive, even as the legal cannabis economy expands globally. California’s traditional cannabis farming communities are facing economic challenges and uncertainty. The financial and logistical barriers created by California’s regulatory framework is forcing legacy growers out of the legal cannabis market, while newly established corporate cannabis operations have an increased stronghold. Local and state policy must incentivize the small legacy operations and constrain large corporate control of the cannabis market. Legal growers need regulatory and tax relief as well as public banking.
Equity programs designed to increase participation for minorities and the economically disadvantaged are allowed by state law, but funding and deployment of such programs are left to local jurisdictions. To help stabilize California’s traditional cannabis farming communities, more local equity programs are needed to ensure a level playing field for legacy farmers. Equitable access to the regulated market helps ensure compliance with strict environmental laws. Disrupting unlicensed cannabis operations and the unregulated market then encourages patients and consumers to utilize the regulated market.
Fair and equitable cannabis policy presents an opportunity to grow the Party. Historically, rural communities dependent on the cannabis economy do not vote. In Nevada County, a cannabis ban initiative was overturned by registering significant numbers of new voters resulting in a Democratic majority in a traditionally Republican county. California Democratic candidates must be armed with current and comprehensive cannabis education to gain new ground in 2020.