If Sacramento must have a marijuana industry, let’s at least make it fair

Super potent marijuana grows in a retrofitted shipping container. The commercial production and sale of recreational weed becomes legal in California on Jan. 1, and Sacramento is getting ready.
Super potent marijuana grows in a retrofitted shipping container. The commercial production and sale of recreational weed becomes legal in California on Jan. 1, and Sacramento is getting ready. aseng@sacbee.com

If there was any doubt that Sacramento was square in the path of California’s “green rush,” a recent tally showing the city could end up with more marijuana growing operations than it has Starbucks and McDonald’s restaurants should serve as a wake-up call.

More than 100 companies have applied to open grow rooms, The Bee’s Ryan Lillis reported last week, and most are for industrial sites in already troubled, low-income neighborhoods in North Sacramento and off Power Inn Road.

Understandably, some residents are upset. But with more applications arriving every week and a deadline of Jan. 1, when the commercial production and sale of recreational weed become legal statewide, the city is likely to start issuing cultivation permits in the coming weeks.

That makes what happens over the next five months all the more important for Sacramento.

We didn’t support Proposition 64 last November, but now that cannabis is legal for adults in California, the Sacramento City Council must ensure that its regulations are equitable for entrepreneurs and strategic enough to kill a thriving black market of illegal grow houses that have popped up all over the city.

Joe Devlin, the city’s chief of cannabis policy and enforcement, has a plan to do both, and Mayor Darrell Steinberg and City Council members would be wise to listen.

On Tuesday, he will ask the Law and Legislation Committee to consider modifying part of the legal framework that the council adopted earlier this year. It sounds counter-intuitive, but he wants the city to take a less heavy-handed approach to the fledgling marijuana industry.

“It was a one-size-fits-all model for an industry that isn’t one size fits all,” Devlin told a member of The Bee’s editorial board.

The biggest issue is cost. Right now, marijuana manufacturers – extractors, and makers of topicals and edibles – must pay about $60,000 in nonrefundable fees to the city to secure permits to operate. And that’s on top of what they must pay the state.

For big corporations, such fees aren’t a problem. But cash-strapped entrepreneurs, many of whom live in the low-income neighborhoods that will be saddled with the largest percentage of cannabis businesses, can’t afford tens of thousands of dollars for permits.

Instead, they’ll likely keep operating under the table, making it easier for multibillion-dollar corporations to take over the industry. Big Marijuana will rival Big Tobacco and Big Oil.

Devlin would rather the City Council create tiers of licenses based on the type of manufacturing a company does and, more importantly, on its annual revenue. Under his plan, licensing fees would start at less than $5,000 – a far more reasonable amount for entrepreneurs.

In a separate push for equity, Devlin also plans to ask the committee to consider doing away with criminal background checks for many of the people who want to work in the cannabis industry. This will be a harder sell.

Under state marijuana law, state and local agencies may – but are not required to – deny licenses to people with felony convictions, including drug offenses or other crimes “substantially related” to marijuana.

But under Sacramento’s ordinance, anyone who has been convicted of a crime involving the distribution of weed to minors must file a petition with City Manager Howard Chan for a hearing. Only with his permission, can that person get a job working with weed. Felons and people with a history of violence and gang activity are automatically disqualified.

And that goes for everybody, from the man who wants to tend cannabis plants and trim buds to the woman who applies to manage a retail outlet selling edibles in sealed packages.

The city’s policy goes beyond even the alcohol industry. The California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control allows the owners of wineries and liquor stores and bottling plants to decide whether to hire someone with a criminal record.

Owners are subject to more restrictions, however. To get an ABC license to operate, they must show they have been “sufficiently rehabilitated,” evidence of which varies from person to person and case to case. But there’s no blanket ban.

Marijuana and alcohol are not the same. But marijuana is a vice that’s now legal for adults, not unlike alcohol.

Requiring that owners of marijuana businesses have records that are free of violence and drug charges is one thing. The potential for criminal behavior is high. But we are not convinced that there should be a flat prohibition against people who have criminal records who want to work in this new industry.

Why preemptively limit opportunities for jobless ex-offenders who will be living in the shadow of these businesses moving into their neighborhoods?

This is a question that must be answered before Sacramento gets too deep in the weeds of the marijuana industry that it can’t turn back.