Berkeley officials plan ahead with recreational marijuana legalization on state ballot

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After a failed effort to legalize weed in California six years ago, the movement to end recreational marijuana prohibition has found greener pastures with a new state proposition this November.

Since 2010, support for legalization has grown significantly. Berkeley has long been pot-friendly and progressive in its health and safety standards. And recently, the cannabis industry has blossomed further: Just in the last six months, the number of authorized medical cannabis dispensaries in the city doubled from three to six.

Now, as California is poised to pass Proposition 64 — an initiative to legalize recreational use of marijuana — the city has already begun gearing up for what might come next. On Tuesday, Berkeley City Council approved an ordinance mandating that recreational cannabis business only start operating after the city has articulated specific regulations and a licensing process for dispensaries.

Berkeley is known for being compassionate and equitable in its weed industry standards, said Sean Donahoe, Oakland Cannabis Regulatory Commission member. Berkeley dispensaries are required to donate at least 2 percent — by weight — of their cannabis to low-income residents who can’t afford it.

But some worry that Berkeley’s commitment to thorough regulations may actually inhibit access. Donahoe takes issue with Berkeley’s current permitting process, which he says is an overly complicated merit-based system.

Amber Senter, the chief operating officer at an Oakland cannabis dispensary who helped guide the Compassionate Care Collective through its final months securing a permit, said the process was long, with efforts beginning about four years ago.

“It’s very much the Berkeley way of micromanaging everything,” Donahoe said.

Oakland’s permitting process is markedly different from Berkeley’s — and faster, said Senter. Oakland also introduced an equity permit program earlier this year, which gives special eligibility for permits to businesses owned by people previously incarcerated for pot.

Although Berkeley has already taken anticipatory steps, in counties and cities across the state, no one really knows how Proposition 64 might play out.

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Some locals say the new City Council members and, crucially, the new mayor chosen by Berkeley voters next month will decide how smoothly and quickly the process of establishing recreational dispensaries will unfold. Generally, though, City Council is pro-expanding and protecting the cannabis industry — whether it is medical or recreational.

“Where’s my crystal ball? I’d say by the end of next year they’ll have recreational marijuana stores in Berkeley,” said Medical Cannabis Commission chair Charles Pappas. “It depends on who’s mayor — that can make a difference. (Mayoral candidate Laurie) Capitelli might not move as fast.”

City Councilmember Kriss Worthington expects it won’t take long for the council to establish rules for recreational vendors and doesn’t think those standards will turn out drastically different from current city medical cannabis regulations.

Nothing, other than from a business perspective, will immediately change if Proposition 64 passes, Donahoe said. The measure is nearly identical to the legislative framework made a year ago when the California Legislature passed the Medical Marijuana Regulation and Safety Act — in part anticipating future expanded legalization, he said.

Proposition 64, if voted in, would allow those aged 21 or older to use marijuana privately or at licensed businesses, possess limited amounts (with some restrictions on location) and grow up to six plants at home so long as they are not publicly visible.

The measure also implements a cultivation tax and a 15 percent sales tax on the retail price. The money from these taxes would go to youth programs, environmental damage prevention and research about driving under the influence of drugs.

Jamie Kerr, who owns her own dispensary in Shasta County, California, said she wants marijuana prohibition to end. But she has already sent in her ballot, and she voted “no” on Proposition 64. She said the measure allows for large-scale corporatization of the industry and dilutes local government’s control.

According to her, the strictness in the state’s current medical cannabis regulations helps protect small businesses — companies have to pick if they want to be a big grower or a big retailer of pot. And although the proposition uses current medical cannabis regulations as a framework, Kerr said the measure leaves out some protections.

Kerr noted that she likes the “five pages of the 62-page initiative that are devoted to social justice reform.” But she describes her aversion to the proposition as this: She can’t justify voting for an initiative when she only likes 9 percent of it.

Moreover, California’s voter guide notes that research on health effects of marijuana shows there may be some evidence that smoking has harmful effects.

But for many, the initiative presents a significant step toward decriminalizing drug use.

In a place like California, where voters approved medical cannabis back in 1996, and particularly in Berkeley, where weed is embedded in popular perception of its ’60s culture and history, UC Berkeley alumnus and California campus coordinator with Students for Sensible Drug Policy Oliver Zerrudo who supports Proposition 64 said decriminalization is vital.

”Even though cannabis as a culture is more permissive in Berkeley, that permissiveness does not extend to all people,” said campus lecturer and policy manager for the Marijuana Law and Policy unit at the Drug Policy Alliance Amanda Reiman.

People of color are significantly more likely to get in trouble with law enforcement and more likely to receive lengthier sentences for cannabis use than their white counterparts.

“It costs a fortune to keep people in jail,” Worthington said. “I think legalization is going to be a cost saver in some ways.”

Victor Pinho, marketing and communications director for 17-year-old dispensary Berkeley Patients Group, is not sure how Proposition 64 will affect the city’s current dispensaries. He said, though, that BPG plans to “continue to serve patients with the highest standards of clean cannabis” and would “drive that same standard in the adult use market.”

Suhauna Hussain covers business and economy. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @suhaunah.