Photos by Tonya Perme Photography
Cannabis is finally legal in California.
Take a breath. Shrug off the bad vibes of this contentious national election and focus on the positive. Now say it again.
Cannabis is legal in California.
But for policy wonks like Alex Zavell, getting cannabis legal may have been the easy part. The devil, as they say, is in the details. As a senior regulatory analyst for renowned cannabis attorney Robert Raich, Zavell sees a long and complicated road ahead, both in implementing Proposition 64 as well as the host of new medical cannabis regulations that were in the works before the election.
Add to that the fact that local governments will still be able to make their own rules on cannabis, and the wonks and lawyers have a lot of work ahead of them.
“There’s obviously a general attitude across this county that cannabis prohibition has failed and legalizing adult use of cannabis is a better path forward,” said Zavell, 25. “The details though are very important. For some time the writing has been on the wall that that’s the direction of the country but how we legalize it and the details are the hard parts and equally important.”
“There’s obviously a general attitude across this county that cannabis prohibition has failed and legalizing adult use of cannabis is a better path forward.”
Interest in cannabis
When he was a senior in high school, Zavell was assigned to write a report on a U.S. Supreme Court case.
“I had just became aware of cannabis and the policies surrounding it as an individual and had an interest in it,” he said. So he chose the case of Gonzales v. Raich, in which his future employer represented two California medical cannabis patients facing charges for their home grows. The Court ruled against Raich. For Zavell, learning about the case lit a fire in him and he decided he would pursue cannabis law as a career.
He had a friend who had interned with Raich and in 2010 he became an undergraduate researcher for the attorney. Three years later, it became a full-time job. Since then, much of his work has pertained to the policies of local governments, who in the absence of state policies became the sole regulators of the cannabis industry.
“It’s certainly challenging. Each city and county has its own way of doing things and there’s a tremendous diversity of approaches among local governments in this state,” he said. While some municipalities like San Francisco had plenty of resources to put towards regulating dispensaries and drawing up detailed policies, others were small towns with all-volunteer councils and tiny staffs to deal with the same issues.
Though he’s not an attorney himself, Zavell has represented the industry at council meetings and task force sessions. He has advised statewide and regional organizations on policy issues and chairs a local policy committee for the National Cannabis Bar Association.
It’s all put him in a good position to gauge where the state is headed, as far as regulating this industry. And the answer is, well, it’s complicated.
Medical vs recreational
When California lawmakers passed the Medical Cannabis Regulation and Safety Act in 2015, it created the framework of industry regulation. A new state agency was formed from scratch and officials held public meetings across the state to get input before getting to work on the rules.
“The medical cannabis laws that passed on the ballot did it in places like Arkansas and North Dakota that are traditional Republican states, so support for medical cannabis is not a partisan issue in this country anymore.”
Then along came Proposition 64, legalization of adult use, which passed with 56 percent of the vote.
“Obviously it changes the whole conversation in California,” said Zavell. Local control is a key tenet of both measures, and he expects recreational cannabis, like medical, will become a patchwork of different rules. Cities can ban recreational stores outright, and some already have, while others can may allow cultivation but no dispensaries or vice-versa.
But while the industry is used to dealing with the whims of local officials, the impending arrival of state rules leaves plenty of questions. One of the only sure things is the state will begin issuing licenses for cannabis businesses on January 1, 2018.
“There’s a lot of uncertainty about various details as to how it will be implemented. I think in general that sense of regulatory uncertainty is difficult for businesses to deal with in planning how they’ll proceed, with questions like the cost of licensing and how the tax structure will ultimately be implemented,” said Zavell.
Will medical and recreational operations be subject to different rules? Will they be forced to have completely separate supply chains? Will employees still be subject to termination for failing a drug test? Will the tax on sales be a flat tax or progressive? Where will people legally be allowed to light up?
Zavell expects to be heavily involved in answering these questions in the coming year as policy makers hash them out. Proposition 64 is a 62-page document, he said. There are bound to be areas where it needs to be cleaned up.
In the meantime, he says, don’t panic.
“In a lot of ways regulation is long overdue. There are certain aspects of the informal economy that has prevailed over the past decades that clearly call for and require the tools that the regulatory framework our state has adopted will afford us,” he said.
And then there’s the wild card, President-elect Donald Trump. After years of the Obama Administration’s hands-off policy towards weed, will things change under Trump?
“The President-elect has, whenever asked about his approach to cannabis law, repeatedly said he considers it a state issue . . . My hope and expectation is that he sticks to that policy,” Zavell said.
He also pointed out that eight of nine statewide ballot measures on cannabis passed on November 8, meaning medical use is legal in 28 states and recreational in eight states.
“The medical cannabis laws that passed on the ballot did it in places like Arkansas and North Dakota that are traditional Republican states, so support for medical cannabis is not a partisan issue in this country anymore,” he said. “It seems like there are many other issues that would probably be higher priorities to try to change federal policy on.”