City Ponders Reefer Regulations

Supervisor Sheehy wants to regulate recreational cannabis sales.

As Jan. 1, 2018 — the date when adult-use cannabis becomes legal to sell in California — draws ever closer, questions over how San Francisco will choose to regulate the industry become increasingly urgent.

The need for answers has led District 8 Supervisor Jeff Sheehy to draft an ordinance that would amend the city’s administrative code, establishing a cannabis commission and cannabis department.

Sheehy, who Mayor Ed Lee appointed to the Board of Supervisors in January to succeed Scott Wiener, has long been an advocate for medical cannabis, stretching back to his days as the president of the Harvey Milk Democratic Club. It was there in 1996 that Sheehy worked alongside noted cannabis and LGBT activist Dennis Peron to pass Proposition 215, which made California the first state to legalize medical marijuana.

As the only out, HIV-positive supervisor on the board, Sheehy has publicly confirmed his standing as a card-carrying medical-marijuana patient. (Much of the onus for Prop 215 stems from the benefits cannabis provided to Peron’s late partner, Jonathan West, who used marijuana to relieve symptoms of AIDS.) Following in Peron’s footsteps, Supervisor Sheehy is now eager to establish a framework for how San Francisco will regulate adult use.

His chief of staff, Bill Barnes, says the proposed cannabis commission and department will operate like some existing commissions work today.

“As introduced by Supervisor Sheehy, there would be a commission that would issue permits, and there would be a director who would do the daily administrative tasks,” Barnes explains. “The entertainment commission is a good example of this, where they have a commission that ultimately issues entertainment permits, and they have a director who runs the day-to-day operations.”

While Barnes notes that not everyone agrees that a commission is the ideal scenario, he points to the work already accomplished by the Cannabis State Legalization Task Force, which the the Board of Supervisors established in July 2015. Featuring 22 members, the CSLTF has provided an opportunity for members of the public, business owners, and any other interested parties affiliated with the cannabis sector to voice their opinions and share their concerns about how adult-use sales should be regulated.

“Frankly, the public is already kind of driving the process,” Barnes says. “This idea of sort of a one-stop shop or standalone department actually came about because a number of the commissioners who have worked on the issue said that they believed this would be the best approach for San Francisco.”

Part of what makes this situation unique is the fact that San Francisco is the only California city that is also a county. Health departments typically fall under county jurisdiction, while cities are in charge of local zoning control. In San Francisco’s case, they operate concurrently, with the San Francisco Department of Health overseeing the city’s current Medical Cannabis Dispensary program.

However, Barnes doesn’t see the situation as an obstacle.

“What’s interesting is that, because we’re a city and a county, everybody is somewhat consolidated,” he says. “We’re all kind of working together, and that means the Board of Supervisors can take these issues and work on them at the same time — whereas, in other communities, the county might be doing one thing and the city might be doing something else, which may or may not lead to conflicts.”

One doesn’t have to look far to see an example of what Barnes is describing. Across the bay in Oakland, recent City Council meetings have grown contentious over proposed residency requirements in the permitting process.

Asked if he worries similar issues may arise down the line, Barnes says that, “San Francisco is a different scenario than the East Bay.”

He says comparing San Francisco’s proposed solution to what other cities are working on is likely far less important than which mandates — if any — are yet to come down from the state.

“Right now, we don’t know a whole lot about cannabis regulation,” Barnes says. “We know at the state level that there are some proposals that are going to be put into place limiting how this all works. Those haven’t yet been passed. For us, it’s important to put the structure in place so that it can be trusted, and so that everyone can realize it works — and then we can get into the specifics as we get more information.”

Barnes adds that while much is new and in need of clarification in the relationship between local government and cannabis regulation, that doesn’t mean each step forward has to reinvent the wheel.

“Under [San Francisco Health Code] Article 33, we have an existing process in place for people to apply for medical cannabis dispensary permits. We do have this framework already there. I don’t think that our adult-use regulations will look dramatically different from the system that people are already familiar with.”

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