Supervisor’s Proposed Cannabis Commission Leads to Industry Debate

Sup. Sandra Lee Fewer wants more oversight for cannabis, but does San Francisco have plenty already?

If you’ve had trouble keeping track of all the government bodies tasked with overseeing California’s transition into a recreational cannabis market, you’re not alone. Between the state’s Bureau of Cannabis Control, San Francisco’s Office of Cannabis, and the Cannabis State Legalization Task Force, many new institutions currently play a role in shaping the industry’s future.

During a June 20 meeting of the Board of Supervisors’ Rules Committee, District 1 Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer suggested it may be time to add another.

The board established a Cannabis State Legalization Task Force in July 2015. Its chief purpose was to advise them over the past three years on matters related to the legalization of cannabis and subsequent policy decisions. As the Task Force prepares to wind down operations at the end of the year, Fewer now wants to see voters decide if the Charter of the City and County of San Francisco should be amended to establish a Cannabis Commission to oversee the Office of Cannabis. 

At the June 20 meeting, Fewer explained why a new oversight body is necessary to ensure that equity and social justice aren’t overlooked or outright ignored — as happened with the massive expansion of the technology industry.

“Though tech has certainly made a few people very wealthy, this industry has left many people behind, including working class people of color, who are struggling to stay here,” Fewer said. “With the legalization of cannabis, we have an opportunity here to grow this industry in a way that benefits all of our communities. We can do this by giving industry experts and key stakeholders a seat at the decision-making table.”

When the committee opened the floor to public comments, it became immediately apparent that some in the industry feel that establishing a Cannabis Commission is a move best left for the future.

Johnny Delaplane of the San Francisco Cannabis Retailers Alliance noted how operators are still “constantly facing shifting sands” in his request that the committee table the matter for the time being.

“I believe at some point in the future, it could be something that’s very viable,” Delaplane said, “but at this point, we just want to get permitted. We don’t want to see the rules change. We don’t want to have to get to know a new body. We’re frightened of the fact that we might have to go in front of the Planning Commission and then in front of the Cannabis Commission — this idea of double jeopardy.”

Several others echoed Delaplane’s concern that the already cumbersome permitting process — which requires candidates to go before San Francisco’s Planning Commission — would only get worse with the addition of another oversight body. Among them was longtime cannabis activist and task force member Terrance Alan, as well as San Francisco Cannabis Retailers Alliance treasurer Brandon Brown.

Tony Delorio of Teamsters Joint Council 7 spoke in favor of a Cannabis Commission.

“Our forward-thinking city already requires cannabis businesses with 10 or more employees to have labor-harmony agreements or collective-bargaining agreements,” Delorio explained. “A cannabis commission with seats representing organized labor would further ensure that the cannabis industry creates meaningful jobs with living wages, health care, and retirement benefits, so workers can afford to live in San Francisco and the Bay Area, provide for their families, and lift themselves up into the shrinking middle class.”

Commenting on behalf of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, Senior Vice President of Public Policy Jim Lazarus noted that other industries are not required to endure a similar level of oversight, pointing out that there is “San Francisco Tobacco Commission” or “San Francisco Pharmacy Commission.” Lazarus shared the Chamber’s concern that the last thing the cannabis industry needs at present is additional hurdles to jump through, especially when it’s competing against an underground market.

District 11 Supervisor Ahsha Safai dismissed these concerns during his own comment, stating “there is no way, shape, or form that what we’re proposing today is going to create an impediment to [the] industry expanding.”

The Rules Committee then opted to continue the charter amendment for further discussion. At this point, it seems likely that the choice will ultimately be made by San Francisco voters in November, where it may be but one of several important cannabis-related items on the ballot.

In a comment provided to SF Weekly, Sup. Fewer reiterated that her vision for new oversight is not a duplication of existing bureaucracy, but rather a safeguard against corporate interests shaping policy in their best interests.

“A Cannabis Commission would bring transparency and accountability to the Office of Cannabis. There is a misconception that having a commission would mean higher fees for permits and more regulations; this is not true. In fact, a commission would bring key stakeholders to the table to review the fee structure and ensure that our local ordinances governing cannabis are being implemented in the spirit in which the Board of Supervisors intended.”

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