California's counties are sleeping giants when it comes to medical marijuana, but Alameda County is beginning to stir.
One of California's most populous, large, centrally located and progressive counties is moving to modernize its pot-shop rules. Alameda plans to allow the sale of extracts and marijuana-infused products such as edibles, as well as legalize deliveries within and from outside the county, in addition to adding one to three new dispensaries.
According to Supervisor Nate Miley, phase two of the county's medical-marijuana-modernization efforts would permit indoor and greenhouse-cannabis farms in some of the county's vast agricultural land, as well as permit, tax, and regulate kitchens that prepare edibles, cannabis oil extraction facilities, testing labs, and distribution warehouses.
Time is of the essence: Advocates say medical-cannabis patients, particularly rural seniors, are underserved in Alameda. There's also potentially tens of millions of dollars in annual tax revenue for the county, as well as high-paying jobs on the line as California jurisdictions jostle to corner aspects of the newly legitimized medical-pot trade.
"Folks who need cannabis could suffer," Miley explained. "As far as our safety nets and services, [lack of access] has an effect on the needy, the unfortunate, the vulnerable populations who might possibly need this medicine."
He also acknowledged that there's a lot of revenue at stake. "We could suffer if we're not in the picture. ... If we haven't put ourselves in a place to benefit from [medical cannabis], maybe we won't get that revenue stream, or as much as had we been at the ground floor in helping to shape this as we move forward."
California legalized medical cannabis in 1996 but finally regulated it statewide last year. The legal medical-cannabis trade generates several billion dollars in estimated revenue statewide. One in 20 California adults are thought to have used pot for a serious medical condition, and 92 percent of those users thought it worked, according to a study by the Drug and Alcohol Review journal. New rules under the Medical Marijuana Regulation and Safety Act put cities and counties in the driver's seat on regulations.
Cities like Oakland, Adelanto, and Emeryville have been the first to respond to MMRSA's call for local laws to match state rules. Oakland is aggressively moving to license and tax its fast-growing indoor-cultivation industry, as well as add more licensed dispensaries, deliveries, as well as edibles kitchens and extraction labs.
This spring, the Emeryville City Council voted to immediately legalize medical-cannabis deliveries and is planning to potentially become a cannabis biotech hub by licensing labs that test marijuana.
The desert town of Adelanto is working to corner the Southern California market for licensed mega-farms. The city of Santa Rosa began receiving applications for cultivation licenses last week.
But California's counties are much slower and less nimble, Miley said, likening them to aircraft carriers. "It's takes a long time to turn them.
Indeed, Alameda County has barely evolved on cannabis since Miley was elected. He did shepherd legislation that created the county's three dispensary permits. Just two pot shops are open in all of unincorporated Alameda County. Both are ruled over by the Sheriff's Department, and are not allowed to sell edibles, or extracts — both of which are very popular with marijuana patients.
"It took a lot to get that through," said Miley, "and one of the ways was to give the Sheriff's Department control over it.
"I'm hoping there's more acceptance and tolerance of dispensaries now than there was in the early 2000s."
The passage of MMRSA is causing counties statewide into a reckoning with the reality of medical marijuana — after 20 years of state and local politicians sticking their head in the sand, he said. "We've been waiting for the state to come forward for forever. The rules of the game are in place now."
Updating Alameda County's laws won't be easy, though. Conservatives in law enforcement think cannabis is a gateway drug, and its medical use is a ruse, Miley said. Sheriff's have tolerated the two dispensaries "begrudgingly," he said.
Miley — who leads county efforts to battle the prescription drug overdose epidemic, which kills 50 Americans per day — says that "just because something is abused doesn't mean you don't make it legitimately available to people who need it."
Some in the county bureaucracy would also prefer the Alameda wait for more leadership in Sacramento, but Miley insists that is not the right move. "We have the opportunity to be at the vanguard."
The county's plans are currently under review and could go before the full Board of Supervisors in late summer or fall. Phase two plans could be up for Board approval by spring 2017.