San Diego County Supervisors Prepare To Reverse Ban On Backcountry Marijuana Businesses
The new Democratic majority on the San Diego County Board of Supervisors appears poised to legalize marijuana retail and production businesses in the county’s unincorporated areas.
The move would repeal a ban on all new marijuana businesses instituted in 2017, when Republicans held all five seats on the board. The supervisors at the time also voted to shut down the few medical cannabis dispensaries that had received permits to operate legally, giving them until 2022 to close.
Supervisors Nathan Fletcher and Nora Vargas are co-sponsoring a measure due for a vote Wednesday that would direct county staffers to draft regulations for cannabis retail, cultivation, manufacturing, distribution and testing businesses. If that measure is approved, a final ordinance would come back to the board for approval within six months.
Fletcher noted 57% of the county's voters approved Proposition 64, the 2016 statewide ballot measure that legalized recreational marijuana, and that by banning its sale in many areas of the county supervisors have allowed a black market to flourish.
"I think it's vitally important that in San Diego County we have a safe, regulated and legal cannabis system for everything from cultivation and distribution, delivery and consumption," Fletcher said in a virtual press conference. "Right now, what we have is unlicensed operators with potentially unsafe products being sold in the unincorporated areas."
Vargas added that at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic is choking the local economy, a legal, regulated and taxed marijuana industry is an opportunity for economic growth.
"There are significant revenues that can be generated from the cannabis industry that could potentially fill the county's budget shortfalls forecasted from this pandemic," Vargas said.
Vargas and Fletcher also declared their intent to create a cannabis equity program that would help marginalized communities share in the profits of legalization. Armand King, co-founder of the nonprofit Paving Great Futures, said the war on drugs has disproportionately harmed communities of color and that legalization is an opportunity to provide "not a handout but a hand up."
"It's legal, it's not going anywhere," King said. "We want to make sure that this economic resource is going to the right places."
Fletcher said he intended the new regulations to allow for delivery-only services where the retailer does not maintain a storefront dispensary. The city of San Diego does not permit those businesses, which supporters say have lower startup costs and can help meet the demand for legal products.
But questions remain about where the county would permit brick-and-mortar cannabis businesses and whether it would put a cap on the number of permits. Such caps are typically intended to prevent an oversaturation of pot shops, but critics argue they create a distorted market in which only the wealthiest and most well connected entrepreneurs obtain permits.
Bret Peace, the general counsel and co-owner of the San Diego dispensary March and Ash, said he did not support a cap on permits.
"We had people in the industry who did everything they could to prevent us from getting our first permit," said Peace, who participated in Monday’s news conference. "We're ready to do the hard work — we know the county is — to ensure that there's consistent, measured growth."