Growing Conditions: Marijuana Makes the Leap to Big Business. Will California Follow?

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Vicente Fox is losing daylight.

And as the sun slips away over the dome of San Francisco City Hall, the former president of Mexico is also losing his patience.

Former Mexican President Vicente Fox is a staunch advocate of legalizing all drugs — and a friend, and possible business partner, of a Seattle-based entrepreneur who wants to sell legal marijuana.
MarioArmas/AP PHOTO
Former Mexican President Vicente Fox is a staunch advocate of legalizing all drugs — and a friend, and possible business partner, of a Seattle-based entrepreneur who wants to sell legal marijuana.
The business license and Department of Public Health permit Al Shawa acquired from the city in order to open Shambhala Healing Center have been no defense against the federal government.
Michael Hendrickson
The business license and Department of Public Health permit Al Shawa acquired from the city in order to open Shambhala Healing Center have been no defense against the federal government.

About 45 minutes have gone by since Fox and his signature cowboy boots clomped onto the concrete of Civic Center Plaza, where he is the distinguished guest. A small crowd gathered around the tall and powerful-looking 71-year-old — striking in slacks and a blue-striped oxford open at the neck — as he strode past tattooed men in flat-brimmed hats hawking vaporizer pens, pipes, and other marijuana accessories at the sparsely attended, somewhat low-rent International Cannabis and Hemp Expo (which city officials, either leery or outright hostile, had only permitted the night before).

Fox is here to deliver a popular and populist message — that the war on drugs has failed, that it's time to make all drugs, not just marijuana, legal. And right now, the cyclone fencing separating the good news from the rest of the world is in the way. The cameraman from Univision, who showed up too late to catch his keynote speech, and Fox argue on just where to set up the shot so the metal barrier and the vendor tents don't make the made-for-TV scene tawdry.

The camera is set up just before sunset, in time for Fox to tell the television camera in Spanish what he told a few hundred weed-minded people in English — drugs aren't going to go away, legal is better than illegal — before shifting back to English to tell a reporter that it's the states that must lead on this issue, not a federal government too entrenched in special interests to change.

Fox is also here on business. Years ago, a story pushed by the federal drug czar's office that San Francisco had more marijuana dispensaries than Starbucks locations made the rounds through the national media. It wasn't true. But if and when it is, Fox — who appeared in San Francisco earlier in the summer, alongside a former Microsoft executive whose mission is to start the "Starbucks of pot" — is a recognizable pitchman, and bilingual to boot.

Such a future is no long-shot. Around the country, attitudes towards marijuana are changing fast. For the first time, major polls say a majority of Americans — all Americans, not just dreamers and Spicolis on the whacked-out left coast — want marijuana legalized. On a billboard outside Denver's NFL stadium, on television commercials broadcast during NASCAR races, the one-time Weed With Roots in Hell is promoted as a safer, healthier alternative to alcohol. Even Arizona Senator John McCain can smell the change: "Maybe we should legalize," he told a town hall earlier this month.

Nineteen other states have followed California's lead and made cannabis legal for medical reasons (and several more, including deep-red Arkansas and Missouri, are close). But for now, California — with its $1.3 billion in reported medical marijuana sales, and potentially billions more in ancillary industries like hydroponics, carpentry, security and real estate — is being left behind.

The Green Rush is booming now in Colorado and Washington, where voters said "yes" to legalization last fall, and where Fox friend Jamen Shivley's upstart marijuana empire will begin. Meanwhile, California, where it all began — and where voters said no to legalization in 2010 — is struggling, stuck in a bizarre legal gray area that pleases next to no one.

Nearly 17 years after it became legal to provide pot to sick people, dispensaries sell, growers grow, and users use cannabis in an unclear legal limbo. There is no uniform set of statewide rules for medical weed, despite willing partners in capital and labor — and even some guidance from the federal government.

Marijuana isn't going away, but the Golden State appears in no rush to come to grips. For years now, California has been on notice to shape it up, to "get it right" with a regulated medical system (and, of course, market). Yet progress towards a "Weed 2.0" that pleases police and politicians as well as the public is stymied, stalled out while other states innovate and attract entrepreneurship.

When it finally gets here, Fox will be ready. "I'll be around," he tells the crowd (shortly before exhorting them to come and visit Mexico). The subtext is clear: Get your shit together. Big Marijuana is here — just not in California.


In a way, President Barack Obama bears responsibility for the path marijuana has taken in California. Pot was bought and sold here before Obama entered the U.S. Senate — and regulated in San Francisco during the Bush era — but it was Obama's people who sparked the first Green Rush.

A now-infamous memo issued by the Attorney General's office in 2009 seemed to lay it out clearly: State-legal weed is OK with the drug cops in Washington, D.C. The impact was immediate. In San Jose, where there had been no medical marijuana storefronts, there were soon close to a hundred. Heretofore humble folk in Humboldt and Mendocino saw the price of their land skyrocket, especially if they had a hillside with southern exposure. Oakland-based marijuana grow college Oaksterdam University opened new campuses in Michigan and L.A. to meet the demand, and a hydroponics superstore billing itself as the "Walmart of weed" opened near the Coliseum. The boom was on.

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7 comments
greengrowgreen
greengrowgreen

When the author says alcohol is more addictive than cannabis, it’s only to undermine the efficacy of medical cannabis. As mentioned in the ‘the Journal of Pain and Study’ published in 2009, positive effects of medical marijuana have been noticeable even for cancer patients. With so much research available on the benefits of cannabis in treating several ailments, casting aspersions on its efficacy is not justifiable.

Beezling
Beezling

John Lovell is a lying, smarmy, self-righteous scumbag who crusades against industrial hemp cultivation using a campaign of lies, falsehoods, inaccuracies and spite. Look at the letter he submitted on behalf of the CA Narcotics Officers and Police Chiefs in opposition to SB 566. It contains information that is ten years out of date at BEST. He thinks it's cute to refer to hemp proponents as the "hemp Taliban", but it's okay, because his wife came up with that, which makes it ... cute? He is the exemplary epitome of the stubborn, self-centered, self-serving ignorance that hamstrings and retards human progress.

gopal75
gopal75

How much of a factor is Big Money in the anti-legalization camp?

For instance, Melinda Haag has ties to Big Pharma, via her clients at Orrick, some of whom were executives for companies like McKesson, the largest pharna wholesaler in the US.

Is it possible that her actions are informed by her ties to people like that?

arunigrace
arunigrace

Steve Elliott wrote about this weeks ago in the Northwest Leaf and Toke Signals. It was even covered in Hemp News Oregon. California lags in every way possible it seems.

ethernot
ethernot

Since it's such a good idea, why wait until 2016?

There is a voter initiative (www.cchi2014.org) currently under review by the state AG; if approved, signature gathering will begin this October; the LAO estimates that financially both the savings in enforcement and incarceration and revenues from taxes and fees would be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

2014 may be an "off-year" election, but so was 1996 when we passed the Compassionate Use Act ...

ethernot
ethernot

@robertcf

(Sounds like someone's working up to an ad hominem …)

Well, *we* personally don't have one of those, and we can't speak for the CCHI folks; but wouldn't it be nice if this was an issue that carried the day in spite of vested interests, rather than because of them?  You know, on rational and moral grounds, like marriage equality?

 
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