Weed Heavy Hitters and California Politicians Mingle in Santa Monica

Fiona Ma, member of the California State Board of Equalization, says banks need to start accepting weed industry transactions.
Fiona Ma, member of the California State Board of Equalization, says banks need to start accepting weed industry transactions.
Lori Denman-Underhill

There are moments when you can feel the power of fate. That's how it seemed a few days ago at the State of Marijuana 2015 event held by Cannabis Awareness Research Economics in Santa Monica, where leading California elected officials mingled with weed entrepreneurs and health advocates to share ideas as the state hurtles toward a probable vote on legalization in 2016.

The legal cannabis market, estimated by some to be the fastest-growing industry in the United States at $2.7 billion a year, was the key topic.

But what stood out more than such eyebrow-raising dollar estimates was how easily top California politicians now stand with weed entrepreneurs and full legalization advocates, compared with a few short years ago.

“Legalization: Preparing for 2016” featured influential Sacramento Democrats including Fiona Ma, a member of California's State Board of Equalization, who was joined on a panel by Amanda Reiman, manager of marijuana law and policy for the Drug Policy Alliance, a world leader against the war on drugs; chemist Jeff Raber, founder of the Werc Shop, a major cannabis analysis firm; Dale Gieringer, director of California NORML, a key nonprofit dedicated to legalizing marijuana; and William Waldrop, director and CEO of Signal Bay Inc., a major private player providing experts, advisory services, analytical testing and operating services to the MMJ industry.

Earlier, the day kicked off with a discussion of the Medical Marijuana Regulation and Safety Act, passed by the Legislature and expected to be signed by Gov. Jerry Brown.

The act's key authors, California state Assembly members Ken Cooley, Jim Wood and Reggie Jones-Sawyer Sr., enthusiastically described some of the issues involved in AB 266, one in a package of bills to create a system for legal weed, including a new Bureau of Medical Marijuana Regulation under the Department of Consumer Affairs.

But of the politicians present, it was Fiona Ma who offered the most clearly defined position, expressing during her panel concern for California weed industry members who are unable to use any form of electronic banking, including electronic transfers for payroll.

Ma said this restriction must change in California. She had just returned from Colorado, where she said six banks have “come out,” and now allow  legal cannabis businesses to use their services.

The Board of Equalization, though not well known to the public, wields significant power in California. It oversees the administration of sales and use taxes, property taxes and special taxes, and makes major decisions on tax appeals brought against the state by companies and individuals.

Ma urged California banks to open their doors to the weed industry, a move that would bring tremendous legitimacy to the trade.

She also pointedly outlined the potential revenue for California if legal weed taxes begin to roll in.

Ma told the Weekly:

“In 2014, we collected $44 million in sales tax — that [represented] about 25 percent of the legal dispensaries out there. So there is a lot of revenue out there. It's estimated that if we collected from everyone, the sales taxes due would be about $111 million next year. So you can see there is a big discrepancy, not just with sales tax."

Ma predicts that a variety of taxes from legalizing weed "are going to bring in additional revenues to cities and counties. No one knows what the magnitude is going to be in 2016 if it is legalized. But as you can see from today’s tax revenue discussion, from today’s revenue, there is a lot of money being overlooked.”

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Amanda Reiman, of the Drug Policy Alliance, turned to social justice issues, including the longtime criminalization of marijuana, lengthy prison sentences for sometimes-minor marijuana offenses and the high percentage of arrests and sentences for black youths.

Reiman said one important plank in California's move toward legalization must be to create job opportunities within the cannabis industry that can provide those still incarcerated with a way to exit the prison system.

Cannabis Awareness Research Economics' State of Marijuana meetup in Santa Monica drew weed industry leaders and key California politiclans.
Cannabis Awareness Research Economics' State of Marijuana meetup in Santa Monica drew weed industry leaders and key California politiclans.
Lori Denman-Underhill

Assemblyman Sawyer said those now serving jail time for weed should be introduced into the workforce, referring to this as “bringing them back into the business.”

Much of the day, however, was focused on buttoned-up business advice, with William Waldrop of Signal Bay stressing the importance of companies obtaining product liability insurance, especially those firms who hold events attended by the public. Dale Gieringer of California NORML suggested that those who hope to be serious industry players study the fine print in Assembly Bill 266 now, in order to be ready for what's to come.

The 35 speakers, several panels and crowds in the various hearing rooms in Santa Monica, taken together, amounted to a who's who of the California medical marijuana industry, health advocacy world and political scene.

One notable attendee was CannaKids CEO and co-founder Tracy Ryan, who told L.A. Weekly, “Look at how far we have come! It is so exciting to be a part of an industry that is growing at a fast rate, with all of the science that is coming behind it.”

Ryan joined the MMJ movement when her baby daughter was diagnosed with a brain tumor. “I understand what it’s like to lose almost everything,” she says. 

She discussed the high cost of MMJ for the ill, particularly such products as legal medicinal CBD oil, saying, “I am really hoping to work closely with the state Assembly members and get to know each of them, to shed light on the issues that we have for our patients — and how expensive this medicine always is."

Ryan said that with attitudes and laws rapidly changing, she wants the California Legislature to understand that "this is not just about recreational [weed] and dispensaries. It’s about healing people. And getting rid of cancer, and stopping seizures. The prices are astronomical. It’s already so expensive for us to grow and extract the medicine, then to get the licenses for that. It’s going to be exponential.”

CannaKids is seeking sponsors and celebrity backers for her fundraising effort, aimed at providing free and legal medicine to those in need. She and other audience members questioned the state Assembly members present about why the government hasn't investigated medical marijuana's healing benefits on diseases such as cancer.

Assemblyman Wood urged people to be patient, saying he believes in “incremental progress” leading to change.

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