So What Should California Do with On-Site Consumption?

In the 2016 election, California has important decisions to make regarding legal recreational marijuana beyond simply whether to allow it or not. Where and how consumers access the marijuana market is an equally important consideration that bill crafters and policymakers must give serious forethought to. Luckily, Colorado, Washington and the other legalized states have provided living laboratories for the different means of controlling and regulating a legalized recreational marijuana market.

My past have detailed the different legal and regulatory systems that Colorado, Washington, and other recreational marijuana states have implemented for their marijuana markets, specifically regarding on-site consumption businesses such as marijuana lounges, and how such businesses organize and operate themselves within the crisscrossing legal frameworks created by state anti-smoking laws, local ordinances and regulations, and the requirements of the marijuana bills themselves. From the patchwork of pros and cons observed from each regulatory system, patterns have emerged that can guide California policymakers and bill drafters to best craft sensible recreational marijuana laws that carefully balance the potential for state and business revenue against the perceived social costs and negative externalities of legalized recreational marijuana.

In this post, I will detail the recommendations for how California could craft sensible policy for the creation of on-site marijuana consumption businesses, including retail point of sale consumption (RPOSC) businesses, made throughout my previous blog posts. I will offer further guidance on how marijuana RPOSC businesses—distinct from the marijuana-lounge type enterprise which has been the predominant business form within the fledging marijuana hospitality market—can be used to redevelop areas within cities in a similar manner to the effect craft breweries, wine bars, and urban gastro-pubs have had in underdeveloped areas across the state. I will highlight the potential sales and business tax income that previously legalizing states have left on the table by not providing clear guidelines for the creation of businesses in the secondary marijuana hospitality market. Lastly, I will explain what can be done to best foster an environment where business, local government, and social health issues are all accommodated.

Increased tax revenue from new marijuana markets has been cited by advocates as an important reason to legalize recreational marijuana. Recent reports project the amount made in taxes for the last twelve months by the state of Washington at $44 million, while Colorado projects total revenue for the year since legalization at $69 million. Differences in the way marijuana is taxed in each state account for much of the differences in revenue, although experts still believe money is being left on the table by states who still allow relatively unfettered access to medical marijuana markets which aren’t subject to the same degree of taxation as recreational cannabis, and thus, sell at lower prices. The still substantial black market also still supplies a large share of the cannabis consumed in Colorado: a 2014 Colorado Department of Revenue report stated that of the roughly 130 metric tons of marijuana consumed in the state that year, only 77 tons of it was sold through medical and recreational dispensaries. As increasing data shines light on the potential state and local revenue lost to the black market, California can observe the patterns and better craft the laws governing its recreational marijuana market.

Indeed, in order to avoid many of the problems posed by the black market’s continued existence in recreational marijuana states, California must find a way to convince many of the growers and sellers in its black market to fold their historically illegal or quasi-legal (via the states barely regulated medical system) enterprises into the legal marketplace. This is represented most visibly by the Emerald Triangle in Northern California (Humboldt, Medicino, and Trinity counties), which has a long history with black market marijuana production. Allowing regions and cities to create tourist and entertainment destinations could be one way to convince otherwise reticent regions to join the legal market, especially if federal trademark law eventually allows marijuana entrepreneurs and regions to trademark particular “terroirs” or “appellations” as used in wine to differentiate growing regions, as well as marketing marijuana as specifically from the Emerald Triangle or grown through organic methods or by a particular grower. In fact, organizing the various growers in Humboldt County into a market resembling the wineries in Napa Valley is a goal of the Emerald Growers Association and the California Cannabis Voice-Humboldt, two industry advocacy groups for Northern California and the Emerald Triangle.

Experts such as Mark Kleiman from the University of California, Los Angeles, have also noted that if the increasing supply due to the newfound ease and legality of growing cannabis causes the retail price of cannabis to drop below the roughly $10-$20 a gram in current recreational markets, tax percentages tied to the value of sold marijuana would cause revenues to drop further. He offers two answers: a specific excise tax based on the quantity sold rather than the price, or a tax on the potency of the marijuana gauged via the THC content of the product, similar to the different taxation levels for beer and hard liquor. Taxes such as these could serve to simultaneously squeeze out the black market while reducing societal harms from increases in substance use disorder, similar to other “sin taxes” on cigarettes and alcohol.

While the question of how to correctly tax marijuana to balance the social costs and revenue for the state while maintaining a healthy market is a complicated one (see this series of blog posts by fellow classmate/blogger Alexa Quinn for an in-depth analysis of the tax issues related to marijuana), policymakers should also look for complementary means to generate revenue from the recreational marijuana market. This could be done by allowing the creation of entertainment/hospitality industries serving the marijuana market like the aforementioned RPOSC businesses from my other blog posts. These could be bud-pubs in the style of craft brewpubs, or cannabars attached to marijuana greenhouses like wine bars attached to vineyards in the Napa Valley which were mentioned above as potential industry models.

RPOSC businesses can also provide opportunities for the generation of state and local tax revenues beyond what is traditionally been generated by the cultivator-processor-seller cycle of the marijuana market. For instance, lawmakers could add another level of taxation by requiring taxes to be charged when the grower/processor sells to the RPOSC business like a budpub, and again when the budpub sells to the customer to be consumed on premises. This style of taxation would be similar to the way Washington state taxes its marijuana market, i.e. a sales tax for growers to processors, processors to retailers, and retailers to customers. This tax would be likely be passed onto the final price of the marijuana for the consumer, although if wholesale prices continue to fall as expected in recreational markets, the final price tag would only be slightly higher relative to the price when buying at a retail cannabis dispensary, analogous to the difference paid by purchasing a six-pack of beer or bottle of wine at a grocery store versus a pint of beer or glass of wine ordered from within a social bar setting. Whether the tax is based on a percentage of total sale price, quantity of product, or more sophisticated method like THC percentage would be up to policymakers and as noted above is its own complicated issue.

Fortunately, the organizations who are jockeying to craft the resolution that will be on the California ballot in 2016 have so far understood that the on-site consumption issue is a missing link to a complete and healthy marijuana market. The first submitted version of the proposed recreational marijuana bill for California’s 2016 election, titled “The California Craft Cannabis Initiative,” creates a new agency called the California Cannabis Commission which may develop a licensing system for retail locations where marijuana products “may be purchased, sold, served, consumed, and otherwise disposed of in a licensed premises in a manner similar to licensed premises serving alcoholic beverages,” i.e. RPOSC businesses. The bill also contains various zoning requirements banning craft and commercial marijuana grows from residentially zoned areas, while permitting municipalities to draft additional zoning laws for cultivation, processing, and on-site consumption businesses. This language shows the support and understanding from industry advocates not just for the development of a viable recreational marijuana market, but also for actual RPOSC businesses where cannabis is sold and consumed on premises. Future lawmakers should focus their efforts on the above mentioned form of RPOSC business, as opposed to on-site consumption business-types where customers are only allowed to bring and consume their personally acquired cannabis, rather than cannabis products sold from the cannabar, due to proprietors having to shoehorn their business model within conflicting marijuana laws not designed with on-site consumption enterprises in mind. Hopefully, other future recreational marijuana initiative proposals being written for California will also allow RPOSC businesses.

For municipalities and lawmakers, future RPOSC business forms have a number of advantages over the currently existing smoking lounge format seen in Colorado Springs and Nederland, Colorado. First, allowing the sale and consumption of marijuana on the premises allows for safe and easy monitoring of customer intoxication and age levels via carding and employee monitoring. This is augmented by providing opportunities for the business and consumer to be informed about the particular strains and form of the marijuana product (flower vs. concentrate vs. edible) through labeling and “menus”, and also how it will be consumed (vaporizing vs. concentrate/dab “rigs” vs. traditional smoking vs. eating) in a safe manner.

Second, by allowing these businesses to operate kitchens and/or other forms of entertainment like the pool tables, televised sporting events, parlor games, live music or DJs seen within currently existing lounge or pub-type establishments, the businesses could become profitable and desirable entertainment locations for 21 and up crowds outside of their attraction as cannabis consumption locations. This could reap additional taxes through food and drink sales and the corresponding corporate/income tax increase from a successful business. In addition, if considering the long term development of the area around a RPOSC business standing alone or as part of a larger marijuana tourism district, popular RPOSC businesses could increase property values and the economic activity of secondary businesses in the area (like other entertainment venues and restaurants/eateries) in a manner similar to the revitalization seen caused by new craft breweries in under-developed urban areas within California cities like San Diego, San Francisco and Oakland.

Third, legalizing recreational marijuana into a system similar to how California regulates alcohol and providing social settings for marijuana consumption via RPOSC businesses­ that only allow certified-legally grown marijuana—similar to the manner alcohol is sourced, purchased, and consumed at bars and entertainment venues—would create larger demand for marijuana grown and produced within the legal system. In this system, it is likely that user preference between different marijuana products in the marijuana market would necessitate patented, trademarked or otherwise certified strains, varietals, terroirs, appellations and marijuana business copyrights to handle the vast proliferation of products within the new marketplace.

For various reasons, the current smoking lounges existing in Colorado have not spurred this described proliferation of commercialized marijuana strains and brands. One reason could be because the marijuana smoking lounges in Colorado generally operate by requiring customers to bring their own marijuana products in order to maintain their anti-smoking exemption as “social clubs” under a state’s Clean Air Act (explained in greater depth in Additionally, some businesses that allow on-site cannabis consumption decline to personally sell recreational cannabis products due to local ordinances banning recreational marijuana sales. Although important for black market concerns, business owners have no easy way to determine whether the cannabis products their customers are consuming originate from legal growers, and likely don’t want to know. Thus, cannabis lounges that don’t sell marijuana products would seem to be less effective at stimulating overall tax growth and compliance with the legal scheme for recreational marijuana than RPOSC businesses because the marijuana consumed within is not guaranteed to come from the legal market. The equivalent access to social marijuana lounges, along with the lower prices, provides an continuing disincentive for consumers to purchase marijuana from the legal recreational market; conversely, RPOSC business in California that only sell legally grown and sourced bud, and do not allow in outside products similar to bars, could be a constructive tool for communities to reduce their black market grower and seller populations.

As noted above, future RPOSC businesses should be required to stock marijuana products grown from sellers operating within the legal market as certified by an agency responsible for monitoring that market.  As examples, the previously legalized states have often tasked their agencies controlling alcohol or revenue with the additional marijuana responsibilities. Colorado created the Marijuana Enforcement Division out of its Department of Revenue, while Washington expanded the mandate of its Liquor Control Board to also handle marijuana licensing and enforcement. Oregon vested its Oregon Liquor Control Commission with the authority to implement and enforce its new recreational market. What agency will take the lead in California is unknown, though the concept is clearly in play as evidenced by the California Craft Cannabis Initiative’s aptly named California Cannabis Commission. Whatever agency ends up with lead enforcement should be capable of monitoring simultaneously the production, processing, and retail sale aspect of the recreational marijuana market, and will likely need funding from the state’s budget in addition to a specific percentage of funds allocated from marijuana tax revenues.

Additionally, California’s federal lawmakers should make every possible effort in lobbying the IRS and major banks for changes to the way the financial system treats cannabis businesses. Currently, most business done by marijuana businesses in Washington and Colorado is conducted in cash due to reticence by banks to accept deposits from an industry that is still federally illegal. The IRS does its part in Section 280E of the federal tax code by denying tax deductions from marijuana businesses other than for costs of goods sold even for dispensaries operating within the law in legalized states. As Forbes notes, this means deductions can be taken on “wages, rents, and repair expenses attributable to production activities,” but not for wages, rents or repair expenses related to general business or marketing activities such as the actual maintenance of a storefront for the direct sale and consumption of cannabis products. If RPOSC businesses eventually settle into business and revenue cycles similar to bars and restaurants, they will need access to deductions from their state and federal taxes to remain viable investment and business opportunities.

Lastly, the interaction between RPOSC businesses and California’s Clean Indoor Air Act must be legislatively clarified to provide clear guidelines to future businesspeople who seek to invest in the cannabis entertainment and hospitality industry. The California Craft Cannabis Initiative’s language makes no mention of how the Clean Air act affects the potential business forms taken by RPOSC businesses, just that the Commission “may” create licenses for a business where cannabis is consumed onsite.

As I mentioned in my previous blog post, current guidelines (PDF) issued by the California Attorney General at the end of 2011 indicated that serving food or drink relegates the “primary purpose” of smoking-related business away from “smoking,” which previously qualified them for the workplace exemption to the Clean Indoor Air Act. This provision could be an issue for RPOSC businesses seeking to allow marijuana smoking inside their business, as they could not qualify for the same exemption that hookah bars and cigar lounges receive. This could be solved via a simple legislative amendment, though holding the California legislature to the same level of political cooperation and proactivity displayed by the Colorado and Washington legislatures in legislating fixes to their respective recreational marijuana markets seems an unsafe bet at best. It would be easier to write the amendment into the final initiative’s language, although this would make future efforts to amend it difficult due to the vagaries of the California initiative system.

All in all, California has a number of options about how to create a viable marijuana market in 2016 that addresses issues raised by the states that have previously fully legalized marijuana. However, it will require political will and cooperation between the various interested factions within the California marijuana market, from southern California storefront retailers to Bay Area intellectual property entrepreneurs on up to Emerald Triangle growers and cultivators to properly create a uniquely Californian market that best serves California’s varied regions and constituents, while simultaneously providing a successful example for recreational legalization efforts across the country. Along with many other important decisions in the 2016 election, California’s voters will get an opportunity to collectively choose their state’s future and relationship with legal recreational marijuana: hopefully, this blog has educated you, the reader, be you citizen, policy maker and/or entrepreneur with a stake in the market, about the efforts being undertaken now and in the past to shape the form and nature of the nascent marijuana market by California and her sister states, and what relationship we, as citizens, want our state to have with recreational marijuana.

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