Why Some California Counties Are Saying No to Commercial Cannabis
When supporters of recreational marijuana took the issue to California voters last fall, one of the biggest selling points was the promise of millions of dollars in new tax revenue. Legalization could generate up to $1 billion in state and local taxes, the state’s legislative analyst said, with some of the money earmarked for substance abuse treatment, marijuana research and youth programs.
Voters overwhelmingly said yes to to recreational use. But not every city and county rushed to embrace the green wave.
Proposition 64 allows residents to grow up to six plants indoors and possess limited amounts of marijuana. But the law also gives local government the authority to regulate or even prohibit recreational sales within their borders. And many are choosing to do just that.
Thirteen of California’s 58 counties have already banned all marijuana cultivation, manufacturing and sales in their unincorporated areas, according to Cannabusiness Law Inc. Thirty-eight other counties barred some aspect of commercial marijuana operations.
Tracking the positions taken by all of California’s 482 cities is not so easy; the League of California Cities doesn’t keep a record. But municipal lawyers said many of their clients are taking a cautious approach, either expanding existing bans on medical marijuana sales or waiting for further guidance from the state.
Here are five of the top reasons lawyers and local government officials gave for their hesitation.
Fear of the Feds
California may have said yes to recreational marijuana, but it’s still an illegal drug under federal law. While it might seem that growers, manufacturers and retailers would be taking all the risk of a federal crackdown, some cities and counties are wary. They may have reason to be, said Ruthann Ziegler, a partner at Meyers Nave Riback Silver & Wilson’s Sacramento office who has represented cities and special districts.
Seven years ago, only medical marijuana was legal in California. The city of Oakland had embraced medicinal use, and in 2010 leaders there started plans for private, large-scale farming operations. That led Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley to warn Oakland leaders that it remained “an open question” whether public officers who violated state or federal laws by approving a city ordinance would be exempt from criminal liability.
Then-U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag of California’s Northern District also wrote to city leaders, advising them that anyone who helped marijuana growers, “including property owners, landlords and financiers” risked criminal charges.
Shortly after the letters arrived, the elected city attorney, John Russo, announced that he and his office would no longer represent the city in marijuana cultivation matters. Russo cited California’s Rules of Professional Conduct for attorneys, which allow lawyers to withdraw from matters if their clients choose to pursue illegal conduct. The city then retained Ziegler and Meyers Nave for legal advice on medical pot grows.
“Things were different then,” Ziegler said. “But some of us remember.”
And some worry, she said, what the U.S. Department of Justice may do to government officials under U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, an outspoken critic of marijuana legalization.