Sacramento has drafted the ‘quarterback’ for its commercial marijuana team

California’s capital city has hired its first commercial cannabis czar.

Joe Devlin, 39, a former chief of staff for City Council member Jay Schenirer, recently was appointed Sacramento’s chief of cannabis policy and enforcement.

His duties under the $125,000-a-year post he assumed May 1 include serving as administrative point person for multiple city departments involved in regulating Sacramento’s burgeoning local marijuana industry as well as partnering with code enforcement and police to drive out hundreds of illegal, for-profit pot gardens believed to be operating in prohibited residential zones.

Sacramento has 30 licensed cannabis dispensaries, and now officials are reviewing permit applications to bring an anticipated 200 licensed commercial marijuana cultivation businesses into light industrial areas in the city. Next up are permits for marijuana delivery services, distribution companies and cannabis testing labs.

In all, the city is designating 54 staff positions, including 32 new hires at a cost of $5.4 million annually – paid through industry fees – to regulate the local marijuana sector.

Devlin is Sacramento State University graduate and a former legislative aide at the state Capitol. In 2005-06, he served as a civilian media officer in Iraq, working out of Saddam Hussein’s former Al Faw Palace for a multinational counter-insurgency information division.

City Finance Director Leyne Milstein, to whom Devlin reports, said “Joe is like the quarterback of the team” in coordinating the city’s new era of marijuana regulation.

Devlin recently answered questions on his new challenge.

Q: What is the thinking behind designating a chief of cannabis policy and enforcement?

A: The (City) Council is taking an approach that the most thoughtful and responsible way of dealing with this industry is through regulation. The city did this (in recent years) using pieces of different departments without a single person (in charge). I think it got very clear that this was just a lot of work, and we were going to have to some person or persons dedicated to working on all of the policies, regulation and enforcement. It is a lot to do. We’ve been drinking out of a fire hose for the past few years.

Q: Does Sacramento envision itself as a major regional hub for the cannabis industry?

A: What we’re doing now is bringing into the light an industry that is currently here. Sacramento may have some advantages attractive to the industry: geography and relative costs of land and human capital that are less expensive than other areas of the state. There is access to freeways and SMUD, which has lower electricity costs. But I think what the industry ultimately looks like is going to be shaped by the council and the mayor.

Q: What do you see as the economic impact?

A: I am not an economist by trade and as to how big those numbers are or can or should be, the current market has a value reported through our dispensaries at around $113 million in (medical marijuana) sales annually. And that’s only one part of the market. As to its actual (eventual) size, I don’t think anybody will really know probably for a couple of years.

Q: What are the opportunities you see in bringing marijuana entrepreneurs into compliance with state and local rules?

A: There are people in this community that see regulations as a good thing, a means of coming out of the shadows. There are others who see licensing and oversight as a frightening. Many of the folks that are in the commercial cannabis space are not familiar with government processes. They’re not familiar with how to go in and obtain a permit. That doesn’t mean they are bad actors or will do a poor job. They just don’t know how to navigate the process.

On the enforcement-part side of commercial cannabis, there are rules and everyone is going to have to follow them. Period. End of discussion. I think we can help the people to understand the rules and why we have the rules. But everyone is going to have to follow them.

Q: City rules allow limited indoor cultivation for personal use in residential areas but no commercial cultivation. What about people trying to profit by breaking those rules?

A: The other challenging side is around the illegal grows (in houses) and the folks who have been doing this for years with no desire to come into the fold. It is my hope that the legal path of commercial cultivation and manufacturing in industrial zones will be attractive and will create conditions where those (illegal) grows are not economically competitive.

But we also have folks that are going to want to do it illegally in residential communities, and that’s where we want to strengthen our enforcement tools. The grows that are problematic are the ones in neighborhoods. They are felt and seen by the neighbors. When we have calls for service and issues related to public safety, by and large, they stem from illegal residential sites.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and space.

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