Board of Supes President Wants To Leave Some Green Behind

In her last six months on the board, Malia Cohen wants to clarify the city’s cannabis tax situation.

Before District 10 Supervisor — and current President of the Board of Supervisors — Malia Cohen finishes her final term on San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors at the end of the year, she hopes to buttress her legacy as the board’s most active member when it comes to local cannabis policy.

Cohen has already cemented her reputation as someone willing to engage with growers, dispensary operators, and other players in the industry. In 2016, she co-sponsored the creation of San Francisco’s Office of Cannabis, and has remained involved in supporting the city’s equity program, which ensures minority communities have opportunities to receive the highly coveted permits required to operate in the legalized cannabis market.

Now Cohen has a different facet of the industry in mind as she closes out her tenure on the board: taxes.

“I’m not trying to shove a tax down people’s throats,” Cohen tells SF Weekly. “I understand that there is a constituency that is just automatically against a tax. But as a legislator, I think that’s an unrealistic position.”

Taxes are already a contentious subject for California’s marijuana industry. At present, state taxes are levied (and compounded) at all stops in the supply chain, from growers to cultivation to distribution to dispensaries — with the end-user ultimately footing the bill. Dispensaries have expressed concern that potential customers will simply revert to obtaining cannabis through unregulated channels rather than pay the steep taxes currently in place. On top of that, there is still the matter of San Francisco’s take in the proceedings. 

As proposed, Cohen’s tax measure would impose a one-percent tax on gross receipts (all of a business’s revenue in a given period) starting in 2020. The following year, that would increase to a rate between one and five percent, based on the category of the business in question. The first $500,000 of a business’s gross receipts would be exempt, as would testing facilities and medical cannabis.

Beyond the details of the tax rate itself, Cohen is also eager to establish where the revenue her measure, if passed, will be allocated. She lists workforce development, an entrepreneurial opportunity fund, and general education — subsidizing City College, say — at the top of her list.

On July 13, the Board of Supervisors’ Budget and Finance Subcommittee unanimously moved to continue Cohen’s measure to its next meeting on July 19. As she shepherds her legislation to the November ballot, Cohen shares some hopes and concerns she has for the board and its future work with the cannabis industry.

For one, she’s wary of District 2 Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer’s recent efforts to establish a cannabis commission to oversee the Office of Cannabis.

“I would hope to inspire Sandy Fewer to maybe relax a little bit on her position for a commission,” Cohen says. “I think some of the concerns that she seeks to mitigate could be addressed to be some of our already existing regulatory infrastructure, specifically the Planning Commission.”

She also believes the board should treat the cannabis market as they do any other.

“One of the things that I want to get away from is needling a specific industry,” she says. “I think we need to have a universal approach in how we authorize people in doing their business in San Francisco. I think it’s a disservice, and further exacerbates people’s concerns, by picking on the cannabis industry just because we can. At this point, I’m not in favor of a commission.”

Cohen points to several other cannabis-related issues she hopes to work on before her tenure is complete at the end of 2018, including matters of land-use, the protection of compassionate care programs, and a dire need for general education on cannabis — for the general populace and for her fellow supervisors.

“We have a growing majority of people that are learning and enlightening themselves and becoming more familiar and more comfortable with cannabis,” she says. “One of the things that I always say is that we need to steer away from legislating from a place of fear, because I don’t think it creates the best legislation.”

To that end, Cohen is willing to remain an ally for the board once she’s left. She is currently running for a seat on the State Board of Equalization, but offers herself as a resource and an ally to her fellow — and future — supervisors.

“I’ll probably try to position myself to be more like a godmother,” Cohen laughs. “I’ll have just graduated from the Board of Supervisors, but I’ll still be in the space, still live in the city, still be a woman of color, and still be very connected to these challenges. By that time, I will have carried a measure, hopefully it will have passed, and it will have industry support. I really want to be more of a coalition-builder.”

Zack Ruskin covers news, culture, and music for SF Weekly. |  @zackruskin

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