Craft cultivators need love and protection

California’s medical marijuana industry has many enemies, from members of Congress to hundreds of city councils rushing to write cultivation bans in recent months. But there’s another enemy that’s caused damage to marijuana’s political progress over the past two decades: the industry itself.

Historically independent and mistrustful, cannabis industry pros have had a tough time organizing under the umbrella of self-interest. While trade groups and labor unions have long been power players in Sacramento, cannabis has presented itself as a political step-child, insecure and unloved.

With last year’s passage of the Medical Marijuana Regulation and Safety Act, that unloved status is changing. The cannabis industry has loyal friends in the State Legislature and bipartisan support. The question is, can cannabis stay out of its own way on the road to mainstream acceptance?

Case in point is newly proposed legislation by State Assembly member Jim Wood (D-Healdsburg), a legislative champion of the cannabis industry. Assembly Bill 2516 would create a special “cottage industry” cultivation license for craft and small, independent growers. There are thousands in California.

On the surface, the bill is simple and straightforward. It would seem immune to conflicts within the cannabis industry. But nothing is simple and straightforward in the marijuana world.

The bill addresses a key missing element from last year’s legislation — a category for small, craft cultivators. The bill creates a special license for growers with less than 2,500 feet of outdoor canopy or 500 feet indoors. 

And it speaks to the larger question of vertical integration within the industry.

Big vs. small tension is a major source of conflict, one that the legislature has tried to mitigate. Not surprisingly, large-scale operators have been eager to control as many aspects of the industry as possible — from cultivation to distribution to retail sales.

And not without reason, independent and craft cultivators have feared getting squashed by corporate-sized competitors enjoying huge economies of scale. 

The missing cottage industry license in last year’s legislation was problematic to small growers, validating their fears that the state’s cannabis industry may be taken over by multinationals.

State law makers have tried to walk a fine line, promoting a three-tiered licensing system similar to spirits, beer and wine, that allow for craft and independent operators to thrive in the marketplace.

As for learning to work together and trust outsiders, there’s no legislation for that, but plenty of hope.