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Fears mount for California MMJ patients over “cannabis deserts”

With California on the verge of creating a cannabis market worth an estimated $7 billion by 2025, medical marijuana advocates are sounding the alarm that legalization is having the unintended consequence of cutting off scores of patients from their medicine.

California’s Proposition 64, which legalized adult use and sales of recreational cannabis starting Jan. 1, also gave counties and municipalities the right to restrict where marijuana businesses can be located and to completely ban sales in their jurisdictions. The initiative approved by voters in November 2016 brought upheaval to the medical marijuana industry, which was established under nearly two decades of little state oversight.

The local-rights language of Prop 64 has prompted more cities and counties to temporarily or permanently ban commercial cannabis operations — including those for medical marijuana — effectively creating large “cannabis deserts” across the state, said Dale Schafer, a Sacramento attorney specializing in the rights of cannabis users.

“California is a quilt of many fabrics,” Schafer said. “Some places are very much against (cannabis). Other places embrace it, and it’s hard to predict where those (cannabis deserts) may be.”

Through the end of October, 36 of the state’s 58 counties had announced cannabis bans, according to California City and County Regulation Watch, a nonprofit grassroots group tracking the myriad local marijuana regulations.

While large population hubs in San Diego, the Los Angeles Basin and San Francisco Bay Area likely will not be significantly affected by local bans, Schafer estimated that at least 75 percent of California’s landmass is currently dry due to local regulations.

The spreading desertification is causing great concern among the state’s medical marijuana patients — more than 1.5 million, or 3.83 percent of the state’s population, according to Marijuana Policy Project’s calculations.

“Disabled patients currently living in a ‘dry’ county will have to get a friend to drive them (to their medical marijuana providers), making the cost — including gas and time — a huge barrier,” Shona Gochenaur told The Cannabist. Gochenaur is executive director of Axis of Love, a  San Francisco-based cannabis advocacy group.

The nonprofit group is currently working with officials in San Francisco on a report for the city’s Board of Supervisors that will recommend ways San Francisco can “protect its vulnerable patients from the barriers that Prop 64 created.”

One member of California City and County Regulation Watch will soon have to drive four hours round-trip from her home in Kern County to Los Angeles to pick up her medical cannabis, Jackie McGowan, the group’s director, told The Cannabist. Kern County has opted to phase out its existing medical cannabis dispensaries.

“I think that the state is going to have to realize that their program is broken before they fix it,” said McGowan, who is also a medical marijuana patient and CEO of Canaccelerate, a business resource center. “Two-thirds of the in-state dispensaries, what we consider a legal market today, are in the process of being shut down or moving in the direction of being closed.”

California is also home to nearly two million military veterans, many of whom are turning to cannabis as an alternative to opioids and other prescription drugs for treating chronic pain, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other ailments, said Sean Kiernan, president of the L.A.-based Weed for Warriors Project.

Kiernan said access to medical marijuana has been helping to save lives of California veterans at risk of suicide and overdoses, and he is concerned that local bans will cut off many veterans.

“Those pushing Prop 64 said we were wrong when we voiced our concerns regarding access,” he told The Cannabist in an emailed statement. “We were told we didn’t have a clue, literally, by those pushing their agenda; many who don’t even live in our state. Now we ask those who enjoy the privilege of power, what about us, the veterans, when do we matter?”

Attorney Schafer called the local-rights language facilitating cannabis bans “quid pro quo” that Proposition 64 supporters offered state and city officials in return for their political support. The political trade-off is proving to be a “fly in the ointment,” he said.

California officials are tracking the local cannabis bans, but said when it comes to improving access, their hands are tied.

“We completely understand and empathize (with medical marijuana patient concerns), however the statute gives local jurisdictions the ability to ban commercial cannabis activity in their area,” Alex Traverso, chief of communications for California’s Bureau of Cannabis Control, said in a statement emailed to The Cannabist. “The state doesn’t have control over what cities and counties decide to do.”

Schafer said the immediate beneficiary of local cannabis bans will be California’s already thriving illicit market. He expects litigation will be required before the state’s regulatory and legislative issues are resolved.

“This next year is going to not be make-or-break,” he said. “But it’s going to need correction and attention to problems to try and make sure this works, because this is one of the largest cannabis markets in the U.S. and one of the largest in the entire world. So this has to be done right.”

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