Cannabis showtime returns to Oakland

Submitted by: R.E. Graswich

To witness haphazard, DIY theatrics in local politics, visit Oakland.

Ten months after passing a revolutionary cannabis ordinance package, the Oakland City Council returned to the stage this week and tore into its marijuana rules with hammers and crowbars.

The result was what you might expect.

In a marathon meeting that ended around midnight, the council made substantial changes to its May 2016 rules to regulate the cannabis industry. The biggest change was a new requirement that cannabis operators must reside in the city.

Oakland now has either the most egalitarian, apologetic and inclusive cannabis ordinances in the country, or the most restrictive, paralyzing and anti-business rules imaginable. It all depends on your perspective.

The goal was to avenge the sins of the past and ensure that people victimized by the failed war on drugs -- primarily African Americans and Latinos -- get a fair chance to profit from California's liberalized attitude toward cannabis.

While the goal was straightforward, the ordinances produced in May were a jumble of contradictions. Designed to create opportunities and regulate the industry, they were highly restrictive and narrowly focused.

For example, the rules earmarked half of Oakland's cannabis permits for city residents who had served jail time for cannabis convictions over the past 10 years, or who lived at least two years in Oakland Police districts where cops were especially aggressive about making marijuana arrests.

Not surprisingly, several council members immediately began to feel buyer's remorse after their unanimous votes in May.

Over the past 10 months, the challenges of Oakland's ordinances have become clear. Critics lined up on both sides. Some claimed the equity provisions weren't sufficiently equitable or inclusive. Others predicted the rules would smother businesses and drive away investors.

But typically for Oakland, the city didn't spend the intervening 10 months fine-tuning the rules and building a regulatory structure that could be considered a best practice. The city turned the job over to Darlene Flynn, who directs Oakland's newly invented Department of Race and Equity.

Other California cities with successful cannabis regulatory programs based their ordinances in land use and zoning departments. If nothing else, parking cannabis within zoning and land use helps de-politicize an issue that still frightens many people.

Oakland took the opposite approach. Flynn is just getting started with her work -- the revamped cannabis regulations were her first project -- but the Race and Equity department is by definition a political animal.

The predictable outcome was on display this week, when council members used Flynn's report as a jumping off point and began to conjure up new language from the podium -- always a scary sight in government.

They created a two-phase program that reserves half the permits for "equity residents" -- people who live in specific neighborhoods and have limited income. The first phase also encourages landlords to provide free rent for equity applicants.

The second phase removes equity restrictions. Both phases require Oakland residency for the past three years.

Like the May 2016 ordinances, the latest incarnation passed unanimously. For now.