Could L.A.’s Prop. M Lead to Cannabis Reform?

How a ballot measure aims to use sensible regulations and licensing to kill off SoCal's marijuana black market.

Virgil Grant, a longtime cannabis-industry player and co-founder of the Southern California Coalition (SCC), gets right to the point when I ask him about Proposition M.

“This is the most progressive and influential ordinance that I’ve ever been involved with in the history of this industry,” he says.

With Los Angeles residents set to vote March 7, Prop. M reflects the efforts of the SCC to finally bring comprehensive, sensible cannabis regulations to a city widely regarded as the No. 1 marijuana distribution market in the world. Should it prove successful, the measure may also serve as a blueprint for other cities and California — as well as other states.

“[Prop.] M is definitely going to be the model of what everyone will definitely want to take and plug into their localities, as well as their states,” Grant says. “It will lead the charge for how other cities, states, and counties will respond by taking that model and using it for themselves.”

Grant, who has been a part of the scene since California passed Prop. 215 in 1996, has seen the industry’s tumultuous history and says it’s time for the chaos to end.

“I’ve been around for a long time,” he says. “I’ve been through the Bush years, through federal intervention, DEA raids, and landlord threat letters — the whole nine. I was indicted by the federal government and served six years in federal prison for owning and operating a legitimate medical marijuana facility.

“When I came home, I saw that the industry was not progressing forward in the right way,” he adds. “I saw a lot of outside interests coming into L.A. and trying to dictate how L.A.’s market should run, and I said, ‘Not in our backyard.’ ”

That’s why Grant started the SCC, one of the driving forces behind Prop. M. Comprised of cultivators, manufacturers, distributors, lab testing companies, delivery services, and collective owners, the SCC offers an accurate reflection of the cannabis industry.

“We needed one unified voice instead of 15 different voices chanting 15 different things,” Grant says.

Now that those voices are joined, they are trying to raise awareness for M, a measure that promises to legitimize L.A.’s cannabis industry by creating regulations, establishing a licensing mechanism, and setting reasonable tax structures. In doing so, it will provide a transparent and fair rubric for law enforcement to crack down on so-called illegal operations.

As Adam Spiker, SCC’s executive director, explains, discussions with Grant and pivotal figures like Eric Hultstrom from the Cultivators Alliance and NAACP’s Donnie Anderson, laid the groundwork for Prop. M.

“Time will tell,” Spiker says, “but Prop. M is trying to account for all of the ancillary pieces that need to have their voices heard: the neighborhood councils, the stakeholder groups, certainly the city of L.A. and their elected officials and staff — and, of course, the industry.”

Spiker says it was imperative that the SCC highlight what made this legislation different from ones that came before.

“What’s different this time? I would say MCRSA [Medical Cannabis Regulation and Safety Act of 2016] is different,” he says. “Prop 64 is different. The city council’s opinions of it are different. That’s why the council voted unanimously to put Proposition M on the ballot.”

Another significant factor is the fact that M will finally do away with the 135-dispensary limit on the number of medical dispensaries allowed to have licenses under the auspices of 2013’s Prop. D. A lack of licensing was to blame when the passage of Prop. D immediately deemed over 1,000 local dispensaries illegal.

Under Prop. M, rogue shops like the ones affected by Prop. D will be given the chance to apply for licenses from the city. Not only will this drastically reduce the number of shops operating outside of regulations, but it will also ensure that all licensed shops operate under clearly stated safety and business guidelines.

“Proposition M makes it black-and-white,” Spiker says of which businesses will be allowed to operate in the city. “You’re going to need to comply with the regulations set in place with Prop. M, and the ordinance process afterwards through the City Council, if you want to be an operator in the city going forward. Post-licensing, if you try to stick around as an operator that isn’t licensed, the city is going to have more ironclad tools to go shut you down.”

This policy goes hand in hand with a taxation model that took into account the failure of earlier Colorado legislation that made regulated cannabis taxes so expensive that many users reverted back to buying medicine on the black market.

“It will be a two-percent gross receipts tax,” Spiker explains. “That is, from what I’ve seen in Southern California, lower than any other municipality. It’s going to ultimately make it so the end user or patient doesn’t have to pay as high a price for their medicine, and that’s going to make it harder for black market operators to do business.”

For Grant, a pioneer has long fought for sensible cannabis policy in Southern California, March 7 can’t come soon enough.

“You have to keep in mind, as far as cannabis distribution goes, this is the number one market for cannabis distribution and production in the world, hands down,” Grant says. “It only makes sense to make sure that this market is fully legitimized in every way — that it’s taxed and controlled — and to use those resources to better the city of Los Angeles.”

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

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