Exclusive: Q&A With Jason Hoppin About New Marijuana-Related Job Position in Santa Cruz

Our sister websites, California City and County News have emerged as the most sought out site for local government job listings anywhere on the Internet. Thousands of job listings have been posted over the past few years and we've seen careers in all categories.

So imagine our surprise when a new posting for the county of Santa Cruz listed an opening for a new position - Cannibas Licensing Manager. Not only has we not seen this job title before, but we quickly recognized this would be the first of many jobs opening up in cities and counties across the state as more laws and measures are passed in response to new resident views on marijuana.

We reached out to Jason Hoppin, the communications director for Santa Cruz County to discuss this new job opening and what it means for public agencies looking to these new roles in the future.

Q — What experience would a candidate ideally bring to this job?

This is primarily a licensing job with a significant land use component. The ideal candidate will have a background in land use regulations and interpretation, and will look at the cannabis issue through that lens. We’re treating this as an executive-level position, and their decisions will be final.

We’ve had issues with problem growers, so the ideal person would foster a climate of compliance across the county. They’ve got to be tough but fair. Everything they do will set precedent, not just here but possibly as a persuasive authority for counties across the state. We recognize that.

A strong learning orientation would be a valuable asset to bring to the job.  They will be licensing not just cultivators and dispensaries but also manufacturers and transportation providers.  They will need to learn all aspects of the cannabis industry and be willing to evolve as the industry itself adapts to the new regulatory environment.

They will also be managing a small staff, so management experience is a plus. And we recognize that there will be a lot of interest in this position from the public, so they should be comfortable with public interaction as well.

Q — Is this a new position that didn’t exist before the Cal Medical Marijuana Regulation and Safety Act?

While cities and counties have had unofficial versions of this, this is a new position, and it couldn’t exist without the MMRSA. Could not.

Previously, we had an inside-out set of regulations where we asked dispensaries and growers to comply with a set of regulations in exchange for limited immunity from local prosecution. There was even case law floating around that local officials could be held liable for sanctioning cannabis. Without the go-ahead from the State, we felt that was the only way to do it, even if the cannabis community wanted licensing to officially end their “outlaw” status. MMRSA explicitly allows us to offer local licenses – hence, the need for a licensing officer.

Q — What are the job requirements, expectations and deliverables?

We need someone with the right mix of education and experience in public administration program development, someone who’s familiar working in a regulatory environment. The positon is going to require a breadth of knowledge, from zoning and general plan rules, management of community expectations and private entities, understanding layers of local and state regulations including more than just cannabis, but water and building codes as well as agricultural regulation. They’ll have to be familiar with CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act), business development and marketing, financial principles, staff management, local government and more.

Q — How has MMRSA changed the way your agency/department does business?

In the face of clear public support for medical marijuana, we have had an admittedly bumpy road in trying to regulate the issue. First, our dispensary regulations have generally worked well, though dispensaries have been targets of crime (then again, so have banks). Second, our attempts to address cannabis cultivation, even under cautious terms, seemed to lead to a “green rush” that has had consequences for our environment and our neighborhoods, particularly those up in the mountains. We believe MMRSA will allow us to get a firmer handle on the issue by allowing us to establish, regulate and adequately fund this effort.

Q — Describe the interaction the incumbent will have with other local and state agencies, including law enforcement.

They will be the primary regulatory contact between the County and state authorities. The nature of that contact, including with law enforcement officials, remains to be seen. Every state that has gone down this route saw some evolution in how state and local regulators, and state and local law enforcement officials, handled the issue. I expect this will change over time as we figure out what works and what doesn’t.

Q — How have you mitigated issues created by the cash economy relevant to fees and taxes?

We have a seven percent tax on dispensary sales that is generating about $2.4 million annually for the County’s general fund, which has helped us offset increased funding for the Sheriff’s Office. That tax was approved overwhelmingly by voters, and we expect to return to the ballot box in November to expand the scope of the tax to wholesalers.

Q — Does the multi-tiered system of local control and state licensing, similar to alcohol, seem workable on the local level?

That’s the Big Question, and obviously things are still being sorted out. Some of the deadlines in MMRSA forced a lot of jurisdictions (including us) to establish local rules regulating cultivation before the state finished writing the regulations to implement MMRSA. What we do know is that the state Legislature wanted locals to have the opportunity to regulate the time, place and manner of cannabis cultivation. We are still in the infancy of this idea so we’ll have to wait and see what it grows into (no pun intended), but this kind of system certainly isn’t reinventing the wheel.

Q — Santa Cruz has been a leader in stakeholder involvement. Has stakeholder input helped define this position?

Stakeholder input has defined our entire approach to this issue. We established the Cannabis Cultivation Choices Committee (C4), hired a former U.S. Department of Agriculture official to facilitate it, appointed legal experts, land use and environmental health officials, cannabis advocates and more and began the process of coming up with a set of recommendations for the Board of Supervisors. The C4 committee held an intensive series of public meetings over more than six months, so we’re basing all our efforts on work that already has community support. It was helpful to have all those interests in the room at the same time, and to hear testimony from impacted neighbors and fire officials. We had one CalFire official tell the group that illegal cannabis grows used to consume 2 percent of his time but that it now consumed 40 percent of his time. I don’t think cannabis advocates previously understood that. Similarly, I think it was helpful to hear directly from growers on what their needs were and what would and would not work from a land use perspective.

Q — How would you rate compliance relevant to local ordinances up to this point?

Mixed at best. Dispensary regulations seem to be working and we’re even auditing their books to assure compliance with the cannabis tax. When it comes to cultivation we tried designing a closed system that serves locals and where no cannabis was exported out of the County, but no one’s under any illusion that that’s what we achieved. We found redwood trees chopped down, out-of-state license plates all over the place, and dangerous situations for law enforcement officers.  We expect the new rules to be better.

Compliance is going to be hard for some growers, and many won’t make the cut. That’s happened in states such as Colorado. As from any licensee, we expect professional operations and some long-time growers probably aren’t going to make the grade. We hope that setting a higher bar helps clean up some of the problems we saw in the past.

Q — If adult use is approved by voters, what adaptations will your agency/department make?

It certainly changes how and to whom cannabis is distributed, but we don’t expect it to change things significantly when it comes to cultivation regulations. It depends on whether the demand changes significantly. Would we see some cannabis tourism? Certainly. Would it increase recreational cannabis use? Put it this way – it wouldn’t decrease it.

But I’m not sure the demand changes enough to overwhelm our licensing manager. The Compassionate Use Act has been in effect for 20 years, and for the past 20 years a whole lot of college-age twentysomethings (and older adults) have come down with conditions that, shall we say, seemed to elude treatment by traditional Western medicine. I’m not being glib about legitimate medical uses for cannabis, I’m just saying that I’m not sure how many recreational users our current system is excluding. Does legalization increase demand? That remains to be seen. But like almost everything else when it comes to regulating cannabis, this may just be a bridge we cross when we get to it.