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Cannabis industry must ensure equal opportunity

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Signage is seen outside of the Cookies SF medical cannabis dispensary in San Francisco. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)
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We are proud that San Francisco was one of the first cities in the nation to create a model regulatory and comprehensive framework for medical cannabis use after California passed the Compassionate Use Act in 1996, which made medical use of marijuana lawful. Cannabis access has been a rallying cry for patients who have experienced its positive medicinal impact for a wide range of issues and illnesses ranging from anxiety and sleep deprivation to debilitating and even terminal illnesses, such as cancer.

The legalization and health benefits of cannabis are not the issues before the Board of Supervisors today. What is before the board is the responsibility to create a regulatory framework for a new, for-profit industry: recreational cannabis.

The debate is no different from others about the use of our limited and valuable land within our 49 square miles. For example, this is the same debate that we have when we regulate short-term rentals or formula retail controls or debate housing versus hotels, office versus manufacturing uses and discuss how to balance a whole range of uses and services that make up a healthy city. 

Just like we do not want a San Francisco that is all luxury housing and tech offices, we do not want a San Francisco where legacy small businesses are squeezed out by chain stores and, potentially, cannabis stores. That risk is real because this emerging, very profitable industry is cash-rich, and we have witnessed the dynamic of having neighborhood-serving small businesses, such as your local mom-and-pop dry cleaner or barber shop or favorite ice cream parlor, pushed out to make room for commercial tenants who are able to pay higher rents. The reality is that, like chain stores, most retailers in the cannabis industry are able to pay much higher rents than most local small businesses.

Moreover, many have confused the issue of access to cannabis for medical needs with the issue of access to cannabis for recreational use. Is access to cannabis actually a problem that we need to solve today? We currently have 46 retail medical marijuana dispensaries and delivery services, 17 of which are located in District 6, the South of Market and Tenderloin. We have approximately 20 cannabis businesses in the “pipeline” in various stages of the approval and permitting process that could become a combination of medical cannabis dispensaries and adult use cannabis. With delivery service alone, patients across San Francisco can purchase and obtain cannabis oil, butter, chocolates and more within hours, if not minutes.

We also believe in a reasonable buffer for cannabis and other adult use retail from schools. Federal law has stated 1,000 feet is the legal buffer zone, and the federal government has enforced this law in the past by shutting down medical marijuana dispensaries that were within 1,000 feet of our schools and childcare facilities. We question how burdensome a 1,000-foot buffer from child-serving facilities is in a city that will very soon have more than 60 retail cannabis operators. 

We agree that liquor stores and tobacco-selling stores have historically been less regulated and that they should be treated similarly, if not more strictly, than cannabis retail. We both supported legislation to limit tobacco permits in every district and to raise the legal age of cigarette purchase to 21. We have personally led efforts to pass legislation to regulate businesses masquerading as “massage parlors” in the Sunset and led initiatives to close problematic liquor stores in the Tenderloin — in one case, turning the space into 826 Valencia, a writing center for children. We have also partnered with neighborhood leaders and residents to convert liquor stores into “healthy corner stores” that sell fresh fruit and produce to our families and seniors. 

Finally, we pose a challenge to this emerging industry: Diversify your ownership. We commend the industry for diversifying its workforce, but on the list of more than 60 current and pending cannabis retail operators, the number of people of color and female owners are in the single digits. The ownership of cannabis retail does not look much different from the upper echelons of Wall Street.

As we move toward correcting the misguided policy of cannabis criminalization and its shameful, inequitable impacts on largely black and brown communities, we ask the industry to take a leadership role in making sure these communities access the wealth that will follow legalization. Let’s make sure San Francisco gets this right.

Jane Kim and Katy Tang are members of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

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