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How Local Control Is Creating Access Deserts in California

California has plenty of cannabis, but depending on where you live in the state you may have to drive a long way to access it legally.


How Local Control Is Creating Access Deserts in California

California has plenty of cannabis, but depending on where you live in the state you may have to travel a long way to access it legally.

California has an abundance of cultivators and a well-earned reputation for being a national leader when it comes to cannabis access. So with the kickoff of adult use legalization just a few months behind us, it might seem logical to assume Californians are up to their eyeballs in bud, but that’s not really the case — at least where legal bud is concerned.

In fact, because of the intense levels of local control written into the state’s legalization policies, there has been slow, uneven rollout of adult use regulations and licensing, making access to legal cannabis highly dependent on geography. Many California cities and counties are banning cannabis business outright while others are placing restrictions on key industry sectors like cultivation.

The Sacramento Bee recently produced a map showing that about 40 percent of California residents have to drive at least 60 miles — sometimes up to 120 miles — to purchase legal cannabis at a licensed dispensary. The map was created using Bureau of Cannabis Control records from early March, which showed that 284 adult use dispensaries that had been licensed statewide.

The map also showed that only 30 percent of the state is 30 miles or closer to a licensed dispensary and that 29 percent of Californians had to drive between 30 and 60 miles to reach a licensed cannabis retailer. Generally speaking, Californians living in urban centers tend to have higher access than those in suburban or rural areas.

An immediate response to this information might be to say “what about delivery services?” Once again, the distinction between licensed and unlicensed cannabis activity is an important one to make. There are undoubtedly plenty of numbers to call in California for cannabis delivery, there aren’t actually that many legal options where delivery is concerned.

As with brick and mortar dispensaries, local municipalities have major control over the extent to which their residents do or do not have legal access to cannabis delivery. And as with most parts of the adult use legalization rollout, most of those municipalities are sitting out the early phases or definitively opting out through bans and restrictions.

Leafly reported that, as of February of this year, only 10 of California’s 482 municipalities were home to business that had been issued delivery-only permits by the BCC, and only 73 permits had been issued statewide. In another illustration of how uneven the access to legal cannabis is between urban and rural areas, just under a third of those permits went to a single city — 23 in the city of Oakland.

This obviously presents a serious challenge for the still emerging adult use market, and the uneven regulatory landscape (along with prohibitively high licensing costs) has already created shortages in certain license types, raising concerns about supply chain stability if, for instance, not enough licensed distributors exist to keep the state legally stocked with licensed product.

But it also presents a real access issue for cannabis consumers, many of whom rely on safe, legal access to address medical conditions and maintain quality of life.

We’ve already witnessed a flashpoint in this conflict between state and local policy in Calaveras County, where a newly elected county board pulled the rug out from under cultivators who had already paid exorbitant fees under a previous county policy that endorsed and taxed cultivation through the state framework. The legal resolution of that acrimonious conflict could tip the balance of control back towards the state or reaffirm the massive power held by local municipalities.

Until then, much of the state will still have to do what they can to access legal cannabis… or just purchase on the illicit market.

TELL US, do you live in a “pot desert?” How do you access cannabis?

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