ELLEN KOMP, deputy director of the California chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), has worked for fifteen years to get recreational marijuana legalized in her state.
On January 1 of this year, it finally happened. But Komp is not cheering. That's because the state's nascent marijuana-growing industry is benefiting not the small growers who started the industry, sustained it, and sometimes went to prison because of it, but people in suits, many of them nonsmokers who don't understand the culture. "We call it the greed rush," she says.
The referendum passed by California voters limited to one acre the amount of land any single person or entity could devote to marijuana, for the first five years of legalization. But that cap disappeared from the final regulations. "The thought is that high-level lobbyists got the ag department to delete that," Komp says.
In other ways, the state's marijuana industry, like elsewhere in the nation, seems skewed to larger growers. Komp says the fees and taxes applied to pot farming are overwhelming to the average mom-and-pop grower, and that many remain unlicensed. Meanwhile, big business is gearing up to dominate the industry.
Investors, stock brokers, and fund managers are now entering the marijuana business. Former Speaker of the House of Representatives John Boehner serves on the board of Acreage Holdings, a rapidly growing cannabis company. Pot has been legalized nationwide in Canada, and publicly traded Canadian companies are also getting involved in California. Many of these companies, according to Komp, are vertically integrated so they don't buy from the small farmer but rather grow cannabis themselves. "We're legalizing marijuana at the time that capitalism is at the height of its excesses," she says.
In the lead-up to legalization, there was a great effort to involve minority groups, because Latinos and black people have been especially affected by the war on drugs. The bill allows for people who have past drug offenses to open businesses, but they often don't have the capital. Many growers are forced to take risks and go to places where they can find cheap but not legal land, Komp says, "exactly the opposite of what we tried to do with legalization."
In short, it's a frustrating situation. "I'm trying to be hopeful that we can continue to band together and push for more progressive laws and regulations," Komp says, "but am very concerned about people's livelihoods being taken away in the consolidation of the business."
To date, nine states and the District of Columbia have legalized recreational marijuana use by adults; pot is allowed for medicinal use in thirty states. All of those have opened the door to legal cultivation of marijuana, creating opportunities for dedicated pot farmers to come out of the shadows.
Yet this transition has been marked by signs that large corporations intend to get in on the action. The stock market now lists cannabis-related ticker symbols; pharmaceutical giants are testing marijuana-related drugs; Snoop Dogg's company...