Fear of a green nation
America’s views on marijuana are slowly changing. While it was once prohibited across the board and demonized as a dangerous drug, only three states currently ban its use in any form – Idaho, Nebraska and South Dakota. Despite the stigma it still holds for some, forward-thinking local leaders are getting out ahead of the legalization movement and have been realizing tremendous benefits because of it – both financially and socially.
Although the legalization effort has been slow-moving, Max Simon, the founder of Green Flower Media, one of the nation’s leading marijuana education and training platforms, says the attitude shift we’re seeing in public leadership is long overdue.
That isn’t to say it’s not understandable, though. It makes sense that lawmakers have been slow to act, but Simon argues much of their hesitation is based on unfounded fears, myths and half-truths. “You can’t really regulate something you don’t understand,” he says. “Unfortunately, because people know so little about cannabis, or the industry, or how it works, or who’s behind it, or who’s consuming it, government officials tend to take a very fear-based attitude toward the regulatory framework which is ultimately self-sabotaging in many ways.”
The fact of the matter is that marijuana’s prohibition’s days are numbered, Simon says, so it’s in local leaders’ best interests to get to know the history of marijuana, to understand how it’s used and learn how they can benefit from it.
Marijuana: A Primer
First of all, marijuana isn’t a technical name. It’s more accurately called cannabis – a plant that was in virtually all medicinal products around in the early 1900s, according to the Drug Policy Institute. At that time, though, there was an influx of Mexican immigration to the U.S., who called the plant “marihuana.” The media, in an effort to demonize these immigrants, wrote extensively about their unpleasant and dangerous customs, including the use of marihuana – an intimidating, foreign-sounding word – which eventually led to the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, which essentially banned the use and sale of the plant.
Skip ahead to the 1950s and ‘60s. Many people who grew up after World War II understood marijuana to be a dangerous drug used by criminals, hippies and other ne’er-do-wells. As its use was becoming more popular in countercultures and minority populations, its current federal status was cemented when President Richard Nixon established the controlled substances act in 1970. This legislation classified marijuana as a schedule one narcotic – next to substances like heroin, certain amphetamines and LSD – indicating it had no medical use and a high potential for dangerous abuse. Although many have contested this claim, it remains the law of the land.
Efforts to reduce drug use were redoubled in the 1980s and 1990s with the establishment of the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) program and others like it. These programs further drove home the idea that cannabis was a dangerous drug, and school children of the time will likely remember Nancy Regan’s famous “Just Say No” campaign. Just how much impact these programs had in reducing drug use in young people is up for debate, though. In 2001, David Satcher, then the Surgeon General of the United States, declared the DARE program was completely ineffective, according to The New York Times.
After nearly a century of being told how harmful cannabis is, scientists and politicians began to question that wisdom. Eventually, in 1996, California became the first state in America to legalize its medical use, and since then cannabis use has been gaining legitimacy. Although the Food and Drug Administration has not recognized cannabis as medicine, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says studies have shown there are genuine medical applications for the chemicals in the plant – specifically tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) – the psychoactive compound in the plant, and cannabidiol (CBD) – a more passive chemical.
Public attitudes have also shifted on cannabis use, growing considerably more favorable as more accurate information becomes available. According to a study conducted by the Pew Research Center last year, 62 percent of Americans think cannabis should be legalized – nearly double what it was in 2000. Not surprisingly, younger generations are generally more likely to favor legalization, 74 percent of Millennials and 63 percent of Gen Xers to be exact. Older generations remain more hesitant. About 54 percent of Baby Boomers and 39 percent of the Silent Generation agree with legalization.
Despite a history shrouded in misinformation, many lawmakers are still dubious about legalizing cannabis in their communities. Will it bring more crime? Will it make the community unsafe? Will this harm children? Will our moral fabric decay?
Simon says these fears are understandable but unwarranted. “There’s a fundamental belief system that exists in the world still that cannabis is a dangerous substance, and the industry is run by dangerous people,” he says. “The science validates that cannabis has almost an identical risk profile to caffeine, and in today’s modern landscape the people who are building and growing cannabis businesses are respected, legitimate, deeply experienced business owners.”
He adds that local government often tend to create regulatory frameworks that are based on fear – read: extreme overregulation – and many view legalization as a “necessary evil” rather than leverage it as an opportunity to help their communities thrive, as one small Southern California city did.
Port Hueneme’s Green Rush
Port Hueneme, Calif., is a small beach community surrounded by the larger city of Oxnard in Ventura County. Despite the state’s legalization of recreational cannabis use in late 2016, the county had taken a staunch anti-marijuana policy. It could be consumed there per state mandate, but it couldn’t be sold.
Andrew Salinas, the city’s police chief, said the city, however, saw an opportunity. At that time, Port Hueneme was struggling with revenue issues, particularly concerning pensions, resulting in a $1 million structural defect. “[The city] looked toward cannabis as it was emerging to be a revenue source,” he says. After much deliberation with city and county officials and residents, it was decided Port Hueneme would be allowed to establish retail dispensaries.
The irony of a police chief championing cannabis in their community isn’t lost on Salinas. “Law enforcement has often taken a guarded approach to the legalization of cannabis, but there is most definitely this paradigm shift in ideology in terms of being more accepting,” Salinas says. “Cannabis is here, it’s here to stay and we’re going to have to take a deliberate, intelligent and comprehensive approach to dealing with it. That’s what I decided to do here in Port Hueneme.”
It took some effort, though. Some community members were concerned that bringing the cannabis industry to Port Hueneme would bring crime and chaos with it. That’s why Salinas says it was extremely important to be transparent throughout the process and help the community understand the benefits while quieting their fears.
It’s jarring for people who have been told their whole lives that cannabis is a dangerous drug to hear it will be generating revenue for their city and will be available for retail purchase down the street from their house. Salinas understood this, and prioritized education to dispel myths and correct misconceptions. “We’re being transparent – we’re actually doing cannabis educational forums to let our community know exactly how cannabis is doing here and the benefits we’re receiving,” he says. “I believe I’m not only here to regulate, I’m here to educate.”
Once concerns were resolved, the city needed to determine the best way to equitably organize their cannabis industry. Salinas says Port Hueneme is unique in that it didn’t pass a cannabis tax. Instead, the city entered into a development agreement with each retailer requiring them to pay 5 percent of their gross sales to the city while also allowing the addition of a number of conditions and terms they must adhere to – requirements that were much more strident than the recommendations from California’s Bureau of Cannabis Control, he says. This could be anywhere from additional armed security to defining hours of operation to allowing the police department real-time access to security cameras.
Additionally, all cannabis retailers are required to take 1 percent of their gross sales and reinvest it into the community through organizations such as the Boys and Girls club, the Hueneme lifeguard association, the Police Explorer Program or the Chamber of Commerce. “All of these organizations have benefited from our dispensaries,” Salinas says.
In all, Port Hueneme has eight approved retail dispensaries that are currently bringing in about $1.8 million to the city’s bottom line. That money has been used to revitalize the city’s community centers, purchase much-needed police equipment and improve beaches and parks. As far as the community’s concerns go, Salinas reports there has been no increase in criminal activity in Port Hueneme – in fact, violent crime has been reduced by over 40 percent. By nearly all metrics, the city’s experiment has been a triumph.
One of the main reasons for this success was the city’s ability to craft policies to their exact specifications. At no other point in history – save for prohibition – have we seen a product go from an immense black market to a legitime one, Salinas says. Instead of approaching with trepidation, he thinks local leaders should view this as a tremendous opportunity. While this isn’t to suggest there’s no need for thoughtful consideration, Salinas says cannabis shouldn’t be written off entirely. “What a unique position I’m in now to start at the ground level to create a cannabis program that fits with my community,” he says.
So You Want to Legalize Marijuana?
Port Hueneme’s success story is compelling, but it’s still easier said than done for communities thinking about cannabis legalization. Federally speaking, it’s still an illegal substance. That creates some pretty significant issues in establishing an industrial infrastructure. However, with more states beginning to legalize recreational use, it will ultimately come down to local leaders to determine how these businesses will operate in their communities.
One leader who understands this process well is Dow Constantine, the executive for King County, Wash., one of the earliest adopters of recreational cannabis use and sale. Back in 1996 when he was running for the Washington State House of Representatives, he says he was asked about drug policy, and his views haven’t changed much since that time. He’s always felt it should be legalized and regulated, and how those regulations manifest should be up to the communities themselves.
Ultimately Constantine feels prohibition is a misapplication of law enforcement efforts and resources. “There are good reasons undoubtedly to take a public health approach to marijuana – young people shouldn’t be using it, we should concern ourselves with dependency, and we should concern ourselves particularly with the impacts of smoking it – but none of that leads to the conclusion that we should be criminalizing it. It’s an inappropriate attempt to control people’s lives and people’s choices… The harm created by the war on drugs is much greater than the drugs themselves.”
It’s difficult to find evidence-based arguments against the legalization of cannabis. Because of this, Constantine says it’s the responsibility of local leaders to accept this and act on it. “Legalization, on the whole, has been a good thing for the state and the communities within my jurisdiction,” he says. “I think as a local leader, your job would be to make sure you have reasonable regulation in place around things like zoning and permitting and you’re creating room for this legal business alongside all of the other legal businesses in your community. The more normalization, the less stigmatization the more transparent and out front and above board this business is, the less harm comes.”
There’s no industry quite like cannabis. Part of that is because of the plant’s sordid history, part of that is because of the gray area it exists in legally, and part of that is because the demand for the product is dramatically outpacing its supply, Simon says. It will take strong leadership to admit we were wrong about it for decades, to make amends and to embrace a more socially just, equitable and beneficial future.
“If government realized this was safe, that it wouldn’t increase harm, that it wouldn’t fuel black market activity – in fact, it would do the exact opposite – [we’d all benefit,”] Simon says. “If we created a genuinely capitalistic but highly regulated framework, not only would it yield billions of dollars in tax revenue, it would stimulate economies, it would stimulate public service, it would bolster public education.”
The only thing preventing this future from being realized are old ways of thinking based on misinformation, misunderstanding and mistruths, Simon says. The only thing preventing it is fear.