How Local Control Impacts Access to Legal Cannabis

How is it that a person in Colorado or Oregon has much easier access to marijuana than millions of people in California, a state with the most progressive reputation in the country? The answer is “local control,” and an increasing number of Californians are complaining about it.

After state voters legalized cannabis in 2016, many considered California, especially Los Angeles, as the nation’s (and maybe the world’s) legal marijuana capital. What many may not have considered at the time was the patchwork of different laws that arose in the state. Many cities and counties have used the power given them under the state law to ban marijuana manufacture or sale.

The California Department of Cannabis Control released numbers that many might find surprising.

  • Only 44 percent of California cities and counties allow the licensing of at least one cannabis business type
  • 56 percent of cities and counties prohibit the licensing of any type of cannabis business
  • 62 percent of cities and counties prohibit the licensing of any form of cannabis retail business (dispensary)

How Local Control Impacts Cannabis Accessibility

Because less than 40 percent of the state’s cities and countries allow cannabis dispensaries,  Californians who approved marijuana legalization may find themselves having to travel farther to purchase legal marijuana.

A recent opinion piece in the Sacramento Bee reported that some people in Northern California must travel hours to buy weed. Sales remain illegal in Sacramento, the state’s capital. Other large cities without legal marijuana sales include Fresno, Irvine, Bakersfield, and Anaheim.

The Bee also noted that the black market remains large in California, where there is currently one legal marijuana retailer per every 38,000 residents. In Colorado and Oregon, there is one marijuana retailer per every 5,000 residents.

California is not alone in this issue. Both Illinois and Massachusetts, for example, allow local control. Many cities and counties continue to ban cannabis sales in both states, including many of the 351 cities and towns in Massachusetts.

In Michigan, which also allows local control, the city of Detroit just granted the first recreational marijuana business license earlier this year, about two and half years after the first legal marijuana sales began in the state.

Will Local Control Continue?

The Bee opinion article called for a change in local control. Even though California’s leaders have sought to help the cannabis industry by granting tax breaks and making delivery legal across the state.

“It could take yet another ballot measure to truly legalize the drug by undoing local control entirely,” according to the Bee. “Given that most of the state’s voters thought that was what they were doing six years ago, such a measure probably would — and should — pass.”

Some states have gone in the other direction. For example, the marijuana legalization proposal Oklahoma voters will consider at the ballot box in March 2023 allows local cities and counties to “prohibit or restrict recreational marijuana use on the property of the local government and regulate the time, place, and manner of the operation of marijuana businesses within its boundaries.”

But it does not allow local officials to prohibit or limit the number of dispensaries.

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