When it comes to cannabis in California, 2017 has largely been about getting ready for what’s coming next year, with legal recreational sales starting Jan. 1.
But there were still lots of big headlines in the world of weed this year. So we’re counting down the top 17 cannabis stories that happened in or affected California over the past 12 months.
First, check out our picks for the Golden State’s 17th through the ninth most significant pot tales.
Then read on for the top eight stories that shaped our year in cannabis.
8. Big business deals make history
With California on the verge of launching the largest legal marijuana market in the world, it’s no surprise that big money flowed into the industry here this year. The oft-overlooked hemp side of the industry drew investments from General Hemp private equity fund and others. An Arizona company spent $5 million to buy the tiny desert outpost of Nipton in hopes of turning it into a cannabis resort destination. A Bay Area startup raised $8.1 million for its portable marijuana breathalyzer test. San Francisco-based Eaze, which makes software to facilitate marijuana deliveries, landed a $27 million investment. An investment group spent a reported $70 million to buy a controlling interest in High Times magazine, which moved its headquarters this year to Los Angeles. A Beverly Hills-based firm announced it plans to invest at least $100 million into legal cannabis ventures in California. And Los Angeles-based MedMen announced it’s private equity fund plans to raise $250 million to invest in marijuana businesses.
7. Farm size fight heats up
Should cannabis farms in California be capped at 1 acre per person — at least to start — to give small growers a chance in the emerging legal market? Or should capitalism rule the day, potentially paving the way for big agriculture to move in? Proposition 64 included a 1-acre limit through 2023. But when the state released final regulations for cultivation in November, the cap was gone, leaving some folks who supported the ballot measure feeling misled. Now some California lawmakers are calling for hearings to implement the farm-size cap. And the Los Angeles Times Editorial Board has taken up the cause, which will play out in 2018.
6. Social equity programs aim to right wrongs
Some California cities made history in 2017 by including social equity programs in their marijuana regulations in an attempt to undo historic harms caused by the war on drugs, which particularly impacts people of color. Oakland started it in May when it rolled out a new permit program for cannabis businesses that gave priority to anyone convicted of a marijuana charge or who lived in neighborhoods known for having lots of cannabis-related arrests. Los Angeles is following suit. And so is San Francisco.
5. Sales start in Nevada
It’s not in California, but we can’t ignore the fifth state in the nation — and our neighbor, which voted to legalize cannabis the same day we did — launching legal recreational marijuana sales July 1. It wasn’t exactly a smooth roll out. Disputes over distribution nearly stalled the launch. Then that distribution issue caused a choke hold on the supply chain, with stores nearly out of stock a couple weeks after sales started. But that didn’t slow sales, with first-month numbers in Nevada dwarfing what we’ve seen in other legal weed states — and, perhaps, giving us a taste of what to expect in California in January.
4. State releases industry regulations – twice
After months of preparation, the three state agencies charged with overseeing commercial cannabis in California finally released draft rules for the medical marijuana industry in April. They then held a series of pubic hearings throughout the state, gathering feedback on those proposed regulations. But then lawmakers tacked a trailer bill, Senate Bill 94, onto the state budget that merged the medical and recreational cannabis sectors. That forced the state to go back to the drawing board, to craft new rules using an emergency process. Those new rules finally came out Nov. 16, giving business owners just over a month to comply with 276 pages of regulations that kick in Jan. 1 and determine everything from how long shops can stay open to how much THC can be in cookies.
3. Threat of federal crackdown looms
Though 29 states have legalized medical marijuana and eight, including California, allow recreational cannabis, the drug remains illegal at the federal level. That poses some problems even for residents in legal weed states. And it’s put a damper on research, with the Drug Enforcement Administration this year continuing to uphold a monopoly on growing marijuana for clinical studies.
The Rohrabacher-Farr has blocked the Department of Justice since 2014 from spending money on medical marijuana prosecutions in states that regulate cannabis. But that protection became tenuous once President Donald Trump appointed Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has pressured Congress not to renew the amendment. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher in May said he will take Attorney General Jeff Sessions to court if necessary to defend the amendment he co-authored. So far, no federal crackdown has emerged, though some experts say the threat alone has had a chilling effect on the industry just as it should be booming.
2. California cities and counties make their own rules
While marijuana was legalized in California through Proposition 64 last November, the law gives local governments full authority to regulate or ban most marijuana activity in their borders. So cities and counties throughout California have been scrambling to get cannabis policies in place by the end of 2017. That’s led to an ever-evolving patchwork of rules that can vary widely from one place to the next, with a city that only allows cultivation next to a city that allows all types of businesses next to a city that’s banned commercial operations entirely.
Cities have also taken to regulating their residents’ right under Prop. 64 to grow up to six marijuana plants per household. One city’s policy even triggered a lawsuit that’s still making its way through the court system.
1. State starts licensing marijuana businesses
On Dec. 14, the Bureau of Cannabis Control issued the first temporary license to a marijuana business in California for Moxie to run distribution services out of a warehouse in Lynwood. The bureau has been issuing them almost daily ever since, and, as of Friday afternoon, 195 retailers, microbusinesses, lab testers and distributors were licensed to do business in California.
The Department of Public Health’s Manufactured Cannabis Safety Branch also started issuing temporary licenses that day to manufacturers who want to use raw cannabis to make edibles and concentrates. They’d issued 128 licenses as of Thursday. And the Department of Food and Agriculture’s CalCannabis division issued its first temporary licenses to cultivators on Dec. 18, with 139 growers licensed as of Friday afternoon.
All of those licenses take effect Monday, as the calendar switches to 2018.