California News

California cannabis conference highlights justice, compliance issues

While a packed room at the California Cannabis Business Conference in Anaheim cheered on inspiring speeches from marijuana rights activists Melissa Etheridge and Steve DeAngelo, audience member Chaney Turner couldn’t join in.

The co-founder of The People’s Dispensary in Oakland stood from her chair and raised her voice to remind the crowd that cannabis prohibition won’t be over until everyone behind bars for marijuana crimes — and particularly people of color — have been set free.

Singer Melissa Etheridge, left, speaks as moderator Juli Crockett, Chief Compliance Officer at cannabis consulting group MMLG, and Steve DeAngelo, Chairman Emeritus at Harborside Heath Center listen during the opening keynote at the California Cannabis Business Conference in Anaheim, CA on Tuesday, October 23, 2018. (Photo by Paul Bersebach, Orange County Register/SCNG)

With a sentence, Turner captured the tremendous pressure facing an industry that’s already booming while the policies, culture and legacy of legal marijuana are just beginning to take shape.

Hundreds of pages of revised state regulations were released Friday, more than 10 months after California launched its legal recreational cannabis market. And panels at this week’s conference, put on by the National Cannabis Industry Association trade group, reflected those ongoing compliance struggles, with talks on taxes, insurance, lab testing, packaging and more.

“I didn’t think this would be easy, but I didn’t really know how hard it would be,” Lori Ajax, chief of the state’s Bureau of Cannabis Control, told the crowd during her keynote address.

Lori Ajax, Chief of the California Bureau of Cannabis Control gives the opening remarks during the California Cannabis Business Conference in Anaheim, CA on Tuesday, October 23, 2018. (Photo by Paul Bersebach, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Despite the daily struggles, advocates such as Turner are calling for the industry to not lose sight of the social justice components of legalization, with a push for policies that address the racial biases that have shaped cannabis policy for the past 100 years.

“If we do not undo that, we are piling injustice on top of injustice,” said DeAngelo, founder of Harborside dispensary in Oakland.

Etheridge, who has been a medical marijuana advocate turned entrepreneur since the plant helped the singer through a bout with breast cancer in 2005, is also fighting to ensure that the marijuana industry takes advantage of the rare opportunity to come of age in a post-#MeToo era.

“We can be the industry that sets the example for all other industries,” she said.

That’s a tall order for many marijuana businesses, which are just trying to survive in the face of hefty taxes, evolving regulations and a thriving black market.

Visitors check out growing equipment at the ProGrowTech booth during the trade show at the California Cannabis Business Conference in Anaheim, CA on Tuesday, October 23, 2018. (Photo by Paul Bersebach, Orange County Register/SCNG)d

The state plans to step up its efforts to give licensed businesses a fighting chance in 2019, Ajax assured the crowd Tuesday. Her bureau hopes to hire roughly 100 more staff members to its current roster of 79 employees, she said, with a growing focus on enforcement. That includes making sure licensed businesses are following the rules, with nearly 800 inspections at legal sites already complete.

The cannabis bureau in January plans to launch a $2 million public awareness campaign aimed at helping consumers know how to find legal businesses and letting the industry know it’s time to get licensed, Ajax said.

State regulators are also working on plans to offer $10 million in grants to local governments, such as Oakland and Los Angeles, which promised to build social equity programs that prioritize licenses for businesses owned by people who have been disproportionately affected by the war on drugs.

That’s why, even though the industry is still operating on temporary licenses and emergency regulations, Ajax said they’ve come a long way over the past year. And more changes are coming in 2019.

“I think next year is a whole new ballgame,” Ajax said.

To keep the industry moving in the right direction, DeAngelo said he hopes to see investment funds dedicated to supporting cannabis industry entrepreneurs of color.

Etheridge said she hopes to see advertisements that don’t denigrate women the way so many other industries and some in the marijuana industry historically have done.

“We can do these things,” DeAngelo said, calling on the industry to be proactive. “We can do better.”