4/20: The Allure, Glamour, and Underbelly of Cannabis in California

Something San Francisco does very well is propel an often underrepresented community forward into the modern age.

A side effect of this tendency, however, is a kind of amnesia that leaves our culture forgetting its roots, often blind to the place from where it came. Take cannabis, for instance; we now see it infused and blended, ingested and lathered into trendy products, so much so that the origin of an old fashioned joint can be momentarily overlooked. How did we get here?

A brief history of California as a whole shows that in recent decades, the state has been at the forefront of efforts to reform cannabis laws, beginning in 1972 with the nation’s first ballot initiative attempting to legalize cannabis. Although Proposition 19 was unsuccessful, California would later become the first state to legalize medical cannabis with the passage of the Compassionate Use Act of 1996 (Proposition 215). In November 2016, California voters approved the Adult Use of Marijuana Act (Proposition 64) to legalize the recreational use of cannabis.

From a political standpoint, unironically, California was the most liberal sister out of the 50 states that either criminalized marijuana or found unjust punishments for those using within state borders. In the 1950s and 1960s, the Beatnik and later hippie cultures experimented with cannabis, driving increased interest. In 1964, the first cannabis legalization group was formed in the U.S. when Lowell Eggemeier, arguably the first cannabis activist, of San Francisco was arrested, and his attorney established LEMAR (LEgalize MARijuana) shortly afterwards. By the mid-1960s, the Saturday Evening Post was publishing articles estimating that half the college population of California had tried cannabis. One writer commented that usage was, “so widespread that pot must be considered an integral part of the generation’s life experience.”

For a large sum of young people, that’s the downright truth. Remember watching Daria in “Is It College Yet?” – a 2002 MTV animated movie charting Daria’s time going to college in six episodes? Daria, in a specific scene at her first college party, inquiries to Jane, “did we walk into White Snake music video or did I just go blind?” The room is clouded with smoke and bodies littered around the room, a quintessential image of the weed-infused, hazy reality that is college house parties.

Fast forward to present day, adults are allowed to possess up to one ounce of cannabis for recreational use and can grow up to six live plants individually or more commercially with a license. On November 8, 2016, Proposition 64, also known as the Adult Use of Marijuana Act, passed by a vote of 57% to 43%, legalizing the sale and distribution of cannabis in both a dry and concentrated form. And in what seemed unlikely, former Governor Jerry Brown approved a bill that was to expunge or reduce marijuana or marijuana-related crimes in the state of California – an unprecedented move from a governor who has slighted canna-advocates since his beginning in office.

In 2019, a San Francisco that has openly embraced a cannabis crazed world that makes walking into a dispensary is as easy as getting your morning Starbucks. While we’ve reported on the rise of boutique and chic—we’re not blindsided by the glamour it perpetuates.

As 4/20, everyone’s favorite holiday comes in full force, we’re seeing advertisements for the chicest and coolest pot bars, creams, wellness retreats, and so much more take full force. Millions of advertising dollars being thrown into the proverbial pit of Instagram and Facebook paid space. And whether you’re buying a cannabis-filled pen off a marble serving tray or getting luxe products Ease’d to your home—California ultimately loses bank.

Thomas Fuller, a cannabis writer and reporter, wrote an intensely researched report on how, yes, California did legalize recreational cannabis but will consumers switch to buying legal strain? “A billion dollars of tax revenue, the taming of the black market, the convenience of retail cannabis stores throughout the state” he writes, “these were some of the promises made by proponents of marijuana legalization in California.”

He reports that California’s hopeful legalization would boost the state’s statute economically as neighbors Colorado and Washington’s licensed sales soared. Though as Fuller reports, “One crucial difference with California is its massive surplus — the state produces far more pot than it can consume.” You never thought you’d be reading this today, huh? He goes on, “The most recent official estimates of California’s cannabis production, a report published a year ago by the California Department of Food and Agriculture, showed the state producing as much as 15.5 million pounds of cannabis and consuming just 2.5 million pounds.”

Those reported stated that supporters of legalization long ago acknowledged the problems of California’s surplus and said it would take years to address. But often or not, individuals find a way to market cannabis and marijuana in others way aside the traditional ways of consumption.

Leaves being grown, photography by Robert NelsonLeaves being grown, photography by Robert Nelson

Leaves being grown, photography by Robert Nelson

In an interview in 2016, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who took office as governor in January of 2019, estimated that 85 to 90 percent of the cannabis that California produced was exported. “It’s a very serious issue,” he said, “and it’s going to create a dynamic where the black market will likely persist in a very stubborn way.
But with minority growers and farmers wanting to play nice with the state, the path is arduous and frowned upon. “The paperwork alone has been enough to put them out of business,” Fuller sadly states in his New York Times article, “A cannabis producer must submit applications to as many as five state agencies, including obtaining a certificate to ensure they are able to use a scale. Lori Ajax, the head of California’s Bureau of Cannabis Control who is sometimes called the state’s cannabis czar, described 2018 as “rough” both for the regulators and the industry.”

And former governor Jerry Brown laughs that cannabis is a “money making venture.” In a latter NYT article, he stated “I have not counted on any revenue from marijuana, who’s counting on the marijuana revenue? People said that to make it more plausible for voters.” But in the SF Bay Area, the free market pulls the concept of cannabis in every which way. Pot dinners, pot meditations, pot panels, pot fill-in-the-blank. If you can put the word pot in front of it, you can profit from it.

As an editor who reports on the “innovation” of cannabis consumption, I’ve had my fair share of run-ins and try outs of how CBD and THC can be distilled into everyday person’s lifestyle. Like most, I’m a person who wants to try new things. The appeal of being able to avoid the long demonized “smoking” portrait of marijuana in trade of digesting, applying, or vaporizing seems ever so enticing.

In February, I was asked to take part in a CBD-style brunch with a very popular pen company inside of San Francisco’s most exclusive members clubs (requesting to be named off-the-record.) I walked into a glass-covered building in one of San Francisco’s nicest neighborhoods that required a fingerprint scan to get in, something straight out of Men in Black. As I was greeted by the front desk, no smiles to be seen on their face, I was led to the top floor, called “The Penthouse.” As I entered through the penthouse double oak doors, a cocktail was perched in one hand and a handful of company brochures in the other.

Greeted by two perky, impeccably-dressed young white women, clad with smiles so white I felt like I could see my nervous reflection, I joined the party. A throng of other Bay Area influencers in the media, press, and personality sphere surrounded me. It was like a mini-family reunion with distant relatives you haven’t seen in years even though you live in the same town. And like most family reunions, we clustered into our little talking groups with the company’s reps floating from group to group asking why we wanted to cover their company, and CBD in general. Answers of the latter following suit, “it’s becoming so popular, we want to highlight the fun and exciting,” etc and so on. As for myself, “I want to highlight majorly the communities of the Bay Area who benefitted from an industry that was underground and how the community rose or fell with legalization.” The amount of stunned and confused faces glancing in my direction was jarring but not shocking. People in power or in privilege don’t do research on how “trends” come to be—that’s the point of a trend. It’s a flash in the pan, something fleeting, seemingly untethered to substance.

I was met with “oh, that’s very interesting,” from the company’s head of communications with zero follow-up in my line of sight. She didn’t, presumptuously, care about history nor the cash stream that now becomes her paycheck. And to her fairness, it’s her job to do her job well. She had to communicate her companies wishes with the press and media efficiently and the answer I gave the group wasn’t the one they wanted to hear. But I’m not alone in my thesis.

The Guardian published a provocative essay on who makes the money in a newly formed industry? And to simply put, “marginalized groups that championed legalization struggle to compete with corporate refugees jumping on the bandwagon.” Alex Halperin, the Guardian writer states in his piece, “In California alone, tens of thousands of farms grow the plant, which is increasingly processed into gorgeously packaged vape pens and edibles marketed to customers outside the core stoner demographic of young men. Today, seniors are the fastest-growing group of marijuana users in the US.” Halperin also notes that early supporters of legalization are finding themselves shrunken over in the conversation about scaling, “In addition, marginalized groups – Aids patients, disabled people, veterans – who championed legalization when it was far riskier to do so now find themselves ill-equipped to compete against well-capitalized corporate refugees looking to jump on the bandwagon.”

Oakland, the birthplace of the Black Panther party, has spearheaded civil rights movements and radical politics for generations. It was among the first US jurisdictions to recognize legalization as an economic opportunity and has sanctioned dispensaries since 2004. More recently, it became one of the first places to create an “equity program” to support marijuana entrepreneurs who were locked up for pot-related offenses or who come from neighborhoods considered disproportionately affected by the “war on drugs”.

But most, who are like myself, often refer to the “cannabis space”–a term broad enough to include a social justice movement and unapologetic capitalism–and recognize no contradiction between them.

Cat Packer, a policy coordinator for the Drug Policy Alliance, based in California who spoke on Marijuana and Disparate Policing Communities of Color often approaches the subject as a person of her community rather than her position. “I went into law school thinking that I wanted to be a civil rights attorney,” she says reflecting on her profession, “as a black queer woman, I understood many of the social injustices experienced by marginalized communities and wanted to use my law degree to fight the many systems of oppression that plagued and terrorized the communities that mattered to me. It wasn’t until my third year of law school, that I that recognized current cannabis policies as a legitimate social justice issue – particularly due to the way marijuana prohibition is enforced.”

Parker sums up the experience of people of color like any other trade, profession, or community, “although more Americans than ever before want marijuana legalized, communities of color continue to be disproportionately impacted by its illegality. These disparities persist even in states that have made reforms to cannabis policies through decriminalization, medical legalization and adult use legalization. These continued disparities further reinforce the ‘war on communities of color’ narrative.”

But as for our money making millennial, Silicon Valley, the money in Cannabis grows at the speed of growing a farm. On a beautiful sunny day in Menlo Park, over the course of the day, representatives from 16 cannabis start-ups delivered five-minute pitches, complete with Powerpoints. CNvest: Terps and Tech, a gathering in the heart of Silicon Valley where entrepreneurs pitched their pot start-ups to more than one hundred investors, executives, and journalists. At the end of the day, a panel of judges would award $10,000 for the best presentation.

Start-up culture looks to find the modern, convenient, and easiest way to make life “simple.” And for them, cannabis is the next step. It’s now estimated that within the booming tech circa cannabis industry, A report from Arcview Market Research and BDS Analytics noted the industry employed an estimated 200,000 people in 2017 and is expected to create another 400,000 jobs nationwide by 2021. Nearly a half million and more jobs would be created in the fields of communications, farming, executive, producing, transportation, and more. Creating promise and hopeful forward-thinking scale.

Critics are outwardly disagreeing “I’ve never seen a craft cannabis brand work out, because it’s not cost effective,” Hilary Bricken, a Los Angeles cannabis attorney with Harris Bricken said. “Presently, no one in legalized marijuana is getting rich,” Steve Schain, a senior attorney with the cannabis-focused Hoban Law Group, said. Crunchbase found that cannabis’s mere $95M in investment in 2016, according to CB Insights, a disparity is clear.

Though Parker believes that if we move forward with a canna-crazed world, we have to remember all angles to the story, “Communities of color are long overdue for relief in this racially enforced war on drugs. Those who care at all about Black and brown communities must too come to realize that past, current and future cannabis policies are a social justice issue and that the war on drugs and the policing of communities of color, particularly for marijuana possession, must come to an end.”

So where are we going in a 2019 San Francisco, especially on a April, 20th that will be allotted at “Hippie Hill” at Golden Gate Park. Just like any industry, it starts by supporting those who support their local purveyors. Flow Kana, an East Bay cannabis distributor who believe in being the first sustainable, sungrown cannabis company to embrace the small, independent farm ecosystem. Flow Kana partner with, and give scale to, craft farmers in Northern California and values-aligned brands who honor beyond-organic farming practices. Offering a wide range of processing, co-packing, white label, and distribution services to a growing list of partners, including brands, dispensaries, distributors, and manufacturers, all who share these values and vision of building a better supply chain for the industry.

The company even offers budding (no pun intended) cannabis entrepreneurs an institution in which to learn industry how-to in an effective and holistic way. Dubbing it, Flow Cannabis Institute. “We believe that California has the opportunity to build a unique agriculture supply chain of diversified independent farmers based on regenerative values,” says Flow Kana’s co-founder and CEO, Michael Steinmetz. “Preserving the immense biological diversity that exists in this Northern California region is key to fighting against the monocropping culture we see moving into the cannabis industry today. The opportunity for California to create the gold standard for agriculture through cannabis is grand and the responsibility to do so even grander.”

//Illustration by Tiffany Nassirian.

4/20: The Allure, Glamour, and Underbelly of Cannabis in California
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