Culture: Isn’t it legal already?

Isn’t it legal already?

By Sean Donahoe


You hear this phrase often enough from both cannabis consumers and everyday Californians: “Isn’t it legal already?” Sadly, California’s laws have not caught up with our public opinion. Although we all benefit from a vibrant and innovative cannabis market here in California, until we pass either (good) statewide regulations for medical cannabis or full, adult use legalization in 2016 – this could all vanish in a flash.

Prior to starting with the California Cannabis Industry Association in January 2013, my background in political consulting had me campaigning around the state and living in Sacramento for several years. During the last two legislative sessions, as CCIA has been working on cannabis policy reform, my political contacts don’t ask me “Isn’t it legal already?” but a flip question “Why are you bugging me about this (when it’s just going to be legal in a few years anyway?)”

It makes perfect sense, from the perspective of an elected official or a Capitol staffer. They’ve got hundreds of bills to juggle in their heads and they frankly don’t see any upside in voting for cannabis policy reform. Whether they fear a stern letter from a local police chief or being attacked during their next election by a local sheriff association’s Political Action Committee, or they just disagree on a cultural or moral grounds with cannabis, the default position is to avoid this subject with a laughing remark that “It’ll just be legal in 2016 anyway.”

While we will push to legalize in 2016, and we will almost certainly win, that doesn’t mean that it’s a legitimate excuse for legislators not doing the jobs that they signed up for. Even without much written in law, our medical cannabis industry here in California is mature and robust, serving as an engine for jobs, commerce, culture and medicine. That is something worth fighting for, and worth fighting for our industry’s recognition in Sacramento as a special interest and an equal player, alongside the dentists, the firefighters, craft brewers, and so forth. We’ve developed industry best practices, testing protocols, and contributed to our communities – it’s time to have this professionalism and self-regulation recognized as well.

We are moving inexorably towards 2016 and again the timidity and indecision of our state legislators to pass legislation has prevented California from moving past a largely self-regulated cannabis industry. Good operators will go above and beyond to lab test their medicine, to invest in safe and attractive dispensaries, to properly label infused products, and to safely manufacture cannabis extracts. Until we have a truly regulated medical cannabis industry, the "bad actors" who neither voluntarily adopt industry best practices nor are subject to state-level standards will be able to thrive. That is not in the interest of California's public safety, patients, nor our Californian cannabis industry.

While we’ve embedded ourselves into the Capitol community, the sheer size of California has required us to simultaneously promote a professional cannabis industry at the local level. We see slow movement in major cities like San Diego and Long Beach and worrying steps backwards in San Jose. Thankfully, voters this November in La Mesa, Encinitas, Santa Ana, Blythe, and Shasta Lake City will have dispensary ordinances on the ballot, and we will also see cultivation ordinances on the ballots in Lake, Butte, Nevada, and Shasta counties. (Expect more on these measures in the months ahead.) This November and beyond, the cannabis industry will finally play a permanent role in local elections and in statewide politics – staying in the shadows simply isn’t an option any more, as our industry begins to recognize itself and speak up for itself.


Sean joined the California Cannabis Industry Association as Deputy Director in January of 2013, after working in several capacities for candidates, revenue measures, and issue-advocacy campaigns throughout California. Sean serves as the Principal Officer for the Cannabis Action PACs and serves on the Board of the Coalition for Cannabis Policy Reform. He lives in Oakland and works out of Sacramento, commuter trains, rental cars, and airport terminals around California. Contact Sean via email