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Dec. 12, 2017

Regulators: approach cannabis with caution, not puns

As Los Angeles County's first cannabis management officer, it is my job to implement the cannabis regulatory policies of the L.A. County Board of Supervisors. The job is hard enough without the jokes.

As Los Angeles County's first cannabis management officer, it is my job to implement the cannabis regulatory policies of the L.A. County Board of Supervisors. The job is hard enough without the jokes.

I have been called out for being "blunt," snickered at for "getting into the weeds," and brought a public meeting to a brief standstill with a "joint presentation." We had to remove a "quick hits" link from our website.

And this rice crispy treat is just something I bought at Starbucks, thank you very much.

To paraphrase George Bernard Shaw, life does not cease to be serious when people laugh. The jokes I suffer often break the ice for a serious conversation about what cannabis legalization will mean for anxious residents, families and communities starting Jan. 1, 2018.

On Nov. 17, 2017, the Daily Journal gave voice to this anxiety in a guest column by Neama Rahmani. Mr. Rahmani expressed grave concerns about crime and safety post-legalization. His forecast is dire:

"I predict the transition to legal cannabis will be violent and perhaps bloody, with assaults from two fronts: the criminals who do not want to surrender their lucrative turf and the federal government unwilling to forgo its drug-enforcement authority."

Mr. Rahmani envisions bulletproof glass, mercenary security firms and stockpiles of cash for criminals to plunder. He wonders at the naivety of local officials who will license and regulate cannabis businesses, suggesting "dollar signs appear to be getting in the way of common sense."

Maybe not.

Consider that for nearly 20 years since voters approved the legalization of medical cannabis in 1996, the Legislature failed to adopt any substantial regulatory framework for cannabis -- no rules requiring basic consumer safeguards, no security requirements, no background checks, no standards to prevent youth access to cannabis.

Consider also that for nearly a decade dispensaries have popped up in nearly all L.A. cities and neighborhoods, near schools and in residential areas, sending law enforcement and prosecutors scrambling to close them. This phenomenon is perhaps most pronounced in the city of Los Angeles. Earlier this year, L.A. City Controller Ron Galperin issued a city map showing over 1,500 cannabis dispensaries, none technically "legal." Research shows that these illegal stores cluster in lower-income and minority communities. They can harm the feel and fabric of entire neighborhoods and add to relatively high rates of crime, unemployment, poverty and other negative health outcomes.

Against this backdrop, in February 2017, the county board decided to evaluate whether regulating -- not banning -- commercial cannabis could better protect county residents and neighborhoods. The board unanimously approved a motion mandating the development of cannabis regulations that "prioritize the protection of public safety and health as well as the quality of life in our communities," directing county departments to examine basic rules like anti-loitering and anti-crime measures, odor control and environmental protection.

In November, the board sharpened its focus on community health, unanimously directing county departments to incorporate innovative health equity models into the licensing framework, including a discretionary hearing process to evaluate and mitigate negative community health impacts and phasing-in legal businesses so that impacts can be carefully monitored.

Above all, the board emphasized community outreach. Since May 2017, the L.A. County Office of Cannabis Management, established just prior to Proposition 64's passage, has engaged residents at over three dozen public workshops, hearings and town halls. These outreach efforts revealed a vast spectrum of viewpoints on legalization, along with the benefits or dangers people perceive.

In light of mixed feedback from county constituents, I believe the Board of Supervisors is approaching legalization the right way: with caution, careful evaluation and by exploring ways that regulations will improve, not worsen, quality of life for county residents.

There will be challenges. Mr. Rahmani rightly sounds the alarm about the relatively high use of cash in the cannabis industry, a direct result of the federal prohibition on cannabis. While no magic bullet short of changes to federal law will solve the industry's banking woes, the U.S. Treasury Department reported in July 2017 that almost 400 financial institutions were providing banking services to cannabis-related businesses that are legal under state law. According to a recent analysis by the Pew Charitable Trusts, in Washington State, where cannabis has been legal since 2014, most cannabis businesses have accounts and about 99 percent of taxes are paid in a form other than cash.

By these measures, access to banking is increasing, and counties across the state are looking at ways to expand banking options. The city of L.A. is even exploring establishing a publicly owned institution to bank cannabis and serve other governmental needs.

In L.A. County, Office of Cannabis Management staff is working with our sheriff, district attorney and planning department to evaluate security protocols, background checks and interior and exterior design features that improve safety, visibility and the effectiveness of law enforcement response. Regulations just released by the state mandate security standards for businesses, including the use of cameras, licensed security personnel, employee badging and limited access areas. These measures will improve upon existing conditions where safety is largely in the hands of individual shop owners.

In fact, county staff across nearly a dozen departments have been working for over a year on countless preparations for legal cannabis, including data collection, developing education campaigns for consumers, youth and vulnerable populations, establishing environmental sanitation standards so that cannabis consumers do not get sick, and studying national best practices to combat drugged driving, including efforts to increase the number of specially trained drug recognition experts.

The Office of Cannabis Management is expected to release proposed cannabis regulations for the board's consideration later this year. Should the board decide to move forward with allowing cannabis businesses, based on its demonstrated commitment to improving conditions in unincorporated areas, I predict greener pastures ahead (I warned you about the puns).

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Ben Armistead

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