Mapping Cannabis Deserts



Millions of Californians Cut Off from Legal Cannabis Market As Cities Sue State to Further Stall Access in Cannabis Deserts


California is the legal cannabis capital of the world,  yet nearly 18 million Californians live in cannabis deserts, or regions cut off from the legal cannabis market.

The NorCal Cannabis Company–one of the largest vertically integrated cannabis operations in California–mapped out those deserts and found that only 14 out of 58 counties–and 82 out of 484 municipalities–have laws that allow retail cannabis storefronts. The rest of the state’s population lives in localities that ban commercial cannabis activity.


Cities File Suit: Interpreting Prop 64

In an effort to address this scarcity–and the law set forth by Proposition 64–California regulators ruled to allow cannabis home deliveries statewide. The regulation permits state-licensed firms to deliver cannabis in cities that have banned retail cannabis operations, reports the Los Angeles Times.

In response to the January 2019 ruling, 25 local governments filed a landmark lawsuit against the California Bureau of Cannabis Control (BCC), and its chief, Lori Ajax. The cities, plus one county, listed as plaintiffs are: Santa Cruz County, Beverly Hills, Riverside, Riverbank, Oakdale, Ceres, Patterson, Temecula, Turlock, Tracy, Tehachapi, Sonora, Dixon, Downey, San Pablo, Clovis, Covina, Atwater, McFarland, Newman, Palmdale, Agoura Hills, Angels Camp, Arcadia and Vacaville.

The local governments cited the regulation as a violation of Proposition 64. They filed suit in an effort to reverse the ruling.

When voters approved Prop 64 in November 2016, they effectively legalized adult-use cannabis statewide. At the same time, Californians also granted local governments control over commercial operations. Per the prop, “local jurisdictions can regulate and tax the retail sales of cannabis.” However, the initiative states, “They could not ban the transportation of marijuana through their jurisdiction.” State lawmakers interpret this to include delivery services.

Opponents to statewide delivery–including the League of California Cities, and the municipalities listed above–believe the rule goes against the prop’s guarantee to preserve local authority of commercial cannabis activity within their own jurisdictions.  

Supporters, on the other hand, believe the regulation upholds the voter’s intention to create access to cannabis.

At the root of the battle is who is ultimately in control and, most importantly, where users can buy legally.


Cannabis Desserts: “It’s Not About Land Use, It’s About Access”

According to NorCal Cannabis’ “California Cannabis Retail Desert” map, 17.8 million adults age 21 and over live in communities with existing bans on adult-use retail sales. Those bans are on safe, legal access, the company asserts.

AnnaRae Grabstein, chief compliance officer at NorCal Cannabis, believes delivery services can help fill the gap in legal retail.

“In California, we are facing a situation where large lots of the state have outlawed access,” she explained.  “As a result, users are forced to turn to the most convenient local means, which is [the] illegal market. Prior to Prop 64, cannabis consumers didn’t have [a legal buying] option, but they do now. Local jurisdictions are actively trying to suppress that option.”

Ultimately, she said, “it’s not a discussion about land use, it’s about access.”

The lawsuits filed by the cities further threaten Californians’ rights to access.

“Voters affirmed their opinion–drug war policies are not wanted in our state. The issue should be settled,” she added, “Delivery [services] strike a balance–it keeps [cannabis] out of sight and out of mind.”

“Communities who aren’t ready [for retail sales] should be welcoming delivery [options] with open arms as a discreet and safe solution,” Grabstein explained.

NorCal Cannabis, a San Francisco founded company, is the number-one delivery service in the state. The company receives approximately 2,000 per day statewide.

Unlike other delivery services, including Uber and Lyft, California law mandates cannabis delivery drivers to be W2 employees with labor peace agreements. That’s something worth acknowledging, said Grabstein. “Our drivers take lots of pride in what they do. They have benefits; a labor peace agreement; are trained; have background checks; a manifest; and badges,” she added, “There’s no confusion from an illegal business.”

Furthermore, cannabis deliveries are shown to be extremely safe, she explained. “There have been no major incidents since delivery started over two years ago–and there’s been an enormous amount  of deliveries,” Grabstein said.

The company does not currently deliver to regions that have outlawed commercial cannabis sales, she clarified, “but we certainly plan to grow into those areas.”

“We believe in protecting rights to access in those areas–making big effort to talk about,” she explained. That’s why the company created it’s retail desert map.

“I find it to be incredibly powerful to [visualize] how much red there is around the state,” she added. “When you see the stark contrast to where adult use [commercial] cannabis dispensaries are located versus where they aren’t, it’s easy to understand why delivery is needed.”

Delivery services provide access to those who cannot travel to a dispensary. People with disabilities make up 11 percent of cannabis consumers, the map finds.

In order to create the map, Grabstein said, “a number of people had to come together to do policy research. [There are] 484 municipalities in the state; we researched every single one  … it hadn’t been done before.”

Grabstein said she had an “aha moment” when she started to look at the data, which proved just how many Californians lived in cannabis deserts.

Because California legalized adult-use cannabis, Grabstein said, “there’s an assumption that there’s access. But it hasn’t come to all Californians yet.”

Though most local jurisdictions ban adult-use cannabis operations, Grabstein said those regions (24 cities and 1 county) that recently filed a lawsuit to gain the ability to prohibit delivery into their jurisdiction represent an incredibly small amount of the state’s population. For that reason, she is cautious of letting “a small amount of people create the next reincarnation of the prohibition of cannabis in California.”

Grabstein, former CEO of Steep Hill Labs the nation’s first cannabis testing facility, said it is disappointing and sad to see so many cut off from the legal market.

“Prohibition was and is a losing approach,” she added, “we encourage statewide delivery [in order to] strike a healthy balance between what local land use wants and what cannabis consumers deserve.”



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