Chem Tales: For Marisa Rodriguez Equity Is Priority No. 1

A former prosecutor sees restorative justice as the chief task for the Office of Cannabis, which she now leads.

Marisa Rodriguez may only be two months into her job, but the new director of San Francisco’s Office of Cannabis (OOC) is already thinking about the future. In a City Hall conference room, she speaks passionately about the work ahead while also acknowledging that she never envisioned taking on cannabis policy.

“It just never occurred to me that I should even consider a career path in” cannabis, Rodriguez explains. “When this opportunity first presented itself, I had to ask the person telling me about the job if they knew I was a prosecutor!”

Having spent nine years in that role with the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office — including a stint as Assistant District Attorney — Rodriguez was offered her current position when the OOC’s first director, Nicole Elliott, left to become a senior cannabis advisor to Governor Newsom.

That city officials would even ask a prosecutor to lead the department intrigued her. It likely had something to do with the fact that Rodriguez is not your standard-issue Assistant District Attorney.

“I never woke up one morning and decided I was going to be a prosecutor,” she explains. “Growing up as an inner-city kid here in San Francisco — and as a woman of color — my interactions with police weren’t always positive.”

Instead, Rodriguez worked to shape policy that could help “right the wrongs” of a system in need of an overhaul. Before accepting her current position with the Office of Cannabis, she’d already begun to consider a move away from prosecuting cases to a role focused more on the system itself and how best to change it.

Then the offer to become the OOC’s new director arrived.

“When this opportunity came, it felt like it was in furtherance of that goal,” Rodriguez says, “so I took it. I closed my eyes and jumped. That’s where we are now.”

Rodriguez took over on April 1, and in the two months she’s been at the helm, San Francisco’s equity program has been her main focus.

At present, no equity permits have yet been issued, but there is progress to report. In such an arcane process, all progress is notable. To get licensed, applicants first work with the OOC, then “graduate” to a planning phase that involves the San Francisco Planning Commission, then amass sign-offs from a multitude of city officials en route to a second period of collaboration with the OOC.

Since she came aboard, Rodriguez reports that ten new applicants have made it to the planning phase, and four have now moved beyond that point. At present, the OOC has issued 168 temporary permits for facets of the supply chain (SFDPH remains in charge of medical permits for retail and delivery, though that will eventually change). Rodriguez says her office hopes to issue its first annual permits by the end of the year. Also on the OOC’s radar? Issuing San Francisco’s first temporary cannabis event permit this fall.

“We’re very excited,” she says, “but you have to remember that we’re still a small footprint. We have to decide where we spend our time, but we’re hopeful that in the fall we’ll see our first piloted event. We’re pushing for fall. If not fall, then winter — but we have momentum.”

What comes across most in speaking to Rodriguez is how deeply she believes in San Francisco’s equity program. For example: In late May, she took her staff on a field trip. She says she wanted her department to hear from those most affected by drug laws that, until recently, usually meant pot was a pipeline to incarceration, not profits.

That’s why instead of visiting a dispensary or one of the city’s licensed cultivation or manufacturing facilities, Rodriguez brought her staff inside the walls of San Quentin State Prison.

“I took them to meet lifers who had been impacted by the War on Drugs,” she says. “I think in order to do this work — to do it well and to truly understand it — we almost have to make it our DNA. Equity is our DNA. The Office of Cannabis equals equity.”

As it turns out, Rodriguez knows the prison well, having worked with former inmate Arnulfo Garcia to co-develop the San Quentin News Forum, which welcomes district attorneys (and other public officials) from across the country to come and discuss criminal justice policies with prisoners serving life sentences.

Now she’s hoping to bring that dialogue into her work with the OOC.

“If all of this can work, we’ll have a thriving commercial cannabis environment that has San Francisco’s footprint on it,” she says, “but I can’t imagine that environment without a strong equity component that’s had an opportunity to dig deep roots. There is going to be a lot of pressure in this space because it’s a hot market. Cannabis is the next big thing, but I would hate to see San Francisco’s soul be taken from this great opportunity. The city has to make it its own.”

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