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Growing Conditions: Marijuana Makes the Leap to Big Business. Will California Follow? 

Wednesday, Sep 18 2013

Vicente Fox is losing daylight.

And as the sun slips away over the dome of San Francisco City Hall, the former president of Mexico is also losing his patience.

About 45 minutes have gone by since Fox and his signature cowboy boots clomped onto the concrete of Civic Center Plaza, where he is the distinguished guest. A small crowd gathered around the tall and powerful-looking 71-year-old — striking in slacks and a blue-striped oxford open at the neck — as he strode past tattooed men in flat-brimmed hats hawking vaporizer pens, pipes, and other marijuana accessories at the sparsely attended, somewhat low-rent International Cannabis and Hemp Expo (which city officials, either leery or outright hostile, had only permitted the night before).

Fox is here to deliver a popular and populist message — that the war on drugs has failed, that it's time to make all drugs, not just marijuana, legal. And right now, the cyclone fencing separating the good news from the rest of the world is in the way. The cameraman from Univision, who showed up too late to catch his keynote speech, and Fox argue on just where to set up the shot so the metal barrier and the vendor tents don't make the made-for-TV scene tawdry.

The camera is set up just before sunset, in time for Fox to tell the television camera in Spanish what he told a few hundred weed-minded people in English — drugs aren't going to go away, legal is better than illegal — before shifting back to English to tell a reporter that it's the states that must lead on this issue, not a federal government too entrenched in special interests to change.

Fox is also here on business. Years ago, a story pushed by the federal drug czar's office that San Francisco had more marijuana dispensaries than Starbucks locations made the rounds through the national media. It wasn't true. But if and when it is, Fox — who appeared in San Francisco earlier in the summer, alongside a former Microsoft executive whose mission is to start the "Starbucks of pot" — is a recognizable pitchman, and bilingual to boot.

Such a future is no long-shot. Around the country, attitudes towards marijuana are changing fast. For the first time, major polls say a majority of Americans — all Americans, not just dreamers and Spicolis on the whacked-out left coast — want marijuana legalized. On a billboard outside Denver's NFL stadium, on television commercials broadcast during NASCAR races, the one-time Weed With Roots in Hell is promoted as a safer, healthier alternative to alcohol. Even Arizona Senator John McCain can smell the change: "Maybe we should legalize," he told a town hall earlier this month.

Nineteen other states have followed California's lead and made cannabis legal for medical reasons (and several more, including deep-red Arkansas and Missouri, are close). But for now, California — with its $1.3 billion in reported medical marijuana sales, and potentially billions more in ancillary industries like hydroponics, carpentry, security and real estate — is being left behind.

The Green Rush is booming now in Colorado and Washington, where voters said "yes" to legalization last fall, and where Fox friend Jamen Shivley's upstart marijuana empire will begin. Meanwhile, California, where it all began — and where voters said no to legalization in 2010 — is struggling, stuck in a bizarre legal gray area that pleases next to no one.

Nearly 17 years after it became legal to provide pot to sick people, dispensaries sell, growers grow, and users use cannabis in an unclear legal limbo. There is no uniform set of statewide rules for medical weed, despite willing partners in capital and labor — and even some guidance from the federal government.

Marijuana isn't going away, but the Golden State appears in no rush to come to grips. For years now, California has been on notice to shape it up, to "get it right" with a regulated medical system (and, of course, market). Yet progress towards a "Weed 2.0" that pleases police and politicians as well as the public is stymied, stalled out while other states innovate and attract entrepreneurship.

When it finally gets here, Fox will be ready. "I'll be around," he tells the crowd (shortly before exhorting them to come and visit Mexico). The subtext is clear: Get your shit together. Big Marijuana is here — just not in California.

In a way, President Barack Obama bears responsibility for the path marijuana has taken in California. Pot was bought and sold here before Obama entered the U.S. Senate — and regulated in San Francisco during the Bush era — but it was Obama's people who sparked the first Green Rush.

A now-infamous memo issued by the Attorney General's office in 2009 seemed to lay it out clearly: State-legal weed is OK with the drug cops in Washington, D.C. The impact was immediate. In San Jose, where there had been no medical marijuana storefronts, there were soon close to a hundred. Heretofore humble folk in Humboldt and Mendocino saw the price of their land skyrocket, especially if they had a hillside with southern exposure. Oakland-based marijuana grow college Oaksterdam University opened new campuses in Michigan and L.A. to meet the demand, and a hydroponics superstore billing itself as the "Walmart of weed" opened near the Coliseum. The boom was on.

This was the atmosphere in which Khader El Shawa entered the marijuana business. In 2009, Al, as he's known in the Mission District where he sold clothes for decades, partnered with a one-time Congressional hopeful to open a dispensary. It took time to navigate San Francisco's legendary planning process — which is even stricter for a pot club — and so it was 2011 before Shambhala Healing Center was open for business.

By that time, the boom had run its course. Fed up with fly-by-night operators, many cities and counties across the state banned dispensaries outright. Staunch supporters of medical marijuana suddenly turned sour on legalization — voicing vague frets about Big Weed and wild rumors about RJ Reynolds buying up plantations in Mendocino — and at the November 2010 ballot, Californians rejected Prop. 19, which would have legalized small amounts of marijuana for adults, 53.5 percent to 46.5 percent.

About The Author

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts has spent most of his adult life working in San Francisco news media, which is to say he's still a teenager in Middle American years. He has covered marijuana, drug policy, and politics for SF Weekly since 2009.


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