Business interests have long tried to pack legislative bodies with members who are sympathetic to their work, but electing marijuana-friendly members to the county Board of Supervisors has never been so important to the cannabis industry.
Recreational marijuana sales begin on New Year’s Day, and the opportunities for cannabis businesses have never been better. But before dispensary owners and farmers can expand their operations in San Diego County, they need the supervisors to repeal a law that almost entirely stops new dispensaries and farms from opening — and also forces ones already in business to eventually shut down.
Clearing a way for medicinal and recreational marijuana businesses to open up in unincorporated parts of the county requires sympathetic candidates to win the two seats that are up for grabs in next year’s election. As a result, the cannabis industry is jumping into the county supervisor races in a bigger way than ever before.
“I see fundraising, I see canvassing, I see mailers,” Lincoln Fish, CEO of farm and dispensary OutCo.
Dispensary owners have donated to sitting politicians and candidates before, but the 2018 election is the first since voters approved Proposition 64, a statewide measure that allowed the sale and taxation of recreational marijuana. However, the measure allows local jurisdictions to regulate cannabis, including outright bans.
The cannabis industry wants to create a sympathetic majority on the board, a feat that requires the election of a marijuana-friendly successor to Ron Roberts, a term-limited supervisor from San Diego who has cautiously supported pro-cannabis policies. The primary is in June, but several members of the industry said they are supporting former state Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher, but they also believe that attorney Omar Passons and former Assemblywoman Lori Saldaña will also support their interests. They also said they will not support Bonnie Dumanis, the former district attorney who prosecuted members of the industry when she was in law enforcement.
They are also focused on the replacement for Bill Horn, a term-limited supervisor from Valley Center, who consistently votes against marijuana. The winning candidates will serve alongside Supervisor Greg Cox of Chula Vista, who has also been open to marijuana businesses.
“We have an opportunity, frankly, to pick up two seats. And we are absolutely willing and ready, our whole group, to back a candidate who will at least keep an open mind,” Fish said.
The County Farm Bureau, a group that sees cannabis as an emerging crop, is also interested in the supervisors races and plans to ask candidates about their marijuana platform when it considers endorsements.
“This will be a question we pose to every single candidate, but I can’t tell you if this will be the deciding factor,” the bureau’s executive director, Eric Lawson, said by telephone.
The board previously had a cannabis-friendly majority but was re-balanced after Supervisor Dave Roberts lost his re-election campaign last year to Kristin Gaspar, a former Encinitas mayor who is opposed to cannabis businesses.
Within weeks of the new supervisor taking office the board, by a 3-2 vote, enacted not only a moratorium on nearly all new dispensaries and farms, but required shops and growing operations already in business to close by 2022.
“If you allow even one dispensary to operate in our community, you’ll endanger our way of life,” Jean Duffy, a coordinator from the Drug Free Julian Coalition, said at a January supervisors meeting. “You’ll put stoned drivers on our winding roads and make marijuana even easier for our youth to get.”
Supervisor Dianne Jacob of Jamul led the effort to enact the moratorium and said that her stance has not changed.
“There are already signs that special interest groups are looking to gain a foothold on this board so they can advance their own agendas,” Jacob said in a statement. “But the board needs to stand strong and continue to put fiscal responsibility and public safety first.”
Gaspar’s office said her position on marijuana is well-established, but she didn’t want to speculate on the implications of next year’s election for cannabis policies.
With just under 12 months to go until the general election, the cannabis industry is wasting no time in supporting candidates who might reverse the board’s moratorium.
“I think that this year it’s unusual to really start this early,” said Dallin Young, the executive director of the Association of Cannabis Professionals. “We are working to get people on our side as soon as they get in rather than trying to convert them.”
Two weeks ago marijuana industry leaders held a fundraiser at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel in downtown San Diego for Nathan Fletcher, a pro-cannabis candidate for supervisor. About 40 people attended, said Virginia Falces, a spokeswoman for Outco, and one of the events organizers. She said she’s planning another fundraiser next summer for 300 to 400 attendees, most of whom will be medical marijuana patients who want supervisors who are sympathetic to their concerns.
While Roberts and Cox have supported regulated marijuana businesses, Fletcher, a Marine veteran, could be a more vocal advocate, particularly for medical marijuana for treating post-traumatic stress disorder, Fish said.
“In Nathan we feel that we’ve got somebody who is willing to be a champion. He understands the issue, and as a combat veteran he has enormous problems with what’s happening with veterans and opioids and PTSD,” Fish said. “They’re getting pumped-up with this stuff.”
Young said that former Assemblywoman Lori Saldaña is also friendly to the cannabis industry. The other candidates, with the exception of Dumanis, “are not going to be bad,” according to Young.
Most of the industry is tuned into electing Roberts’ successor, but will likely get involved in a campaign to fill Horn’s open seat in his conservative North County district, Young said.
Two Oceanside council members who are running, Jerry Kern and Esther Sanchez, seem to be the most agreeable, Young said.
San Marcos Mayor Jim Desmond is also running.
The Farm Bureau doesn’t plan to support a candidate until after the filing period closes in March but Larson, the organization’s executive director, said that a pro-cannabis stance is more important to the bureau than ever before.
While the cannabis industry is trying to get sympathetic supervisors elected, Falces said the most persuasive effort will likely be the start of recreational marijuana sales on Jan. 1. It won’t be anywhere near as dramatic a change as cannabis opponents fear, Young said, and voters will be more likely to back marijuana-friendly supervisors once they see that.
Next year, San Diego City will have a legal and regulated medicinal and recreational marijuana dispensaries, farms, and bakeries making cannabis-infused edibles, setting an example for the impact the industry can have.
“January 1st is our Y2K,” she said. “The world is not going to end because people have access to cannabis.”