Dispensary Bust
An illegal marijuana cultivation site in Valley Center. Photo via @SDSheriff Twitter

Words matter. Facts do, too.

This adherence to the truth inspires National Drug and Alcohol Facts Week, an annual observance dedicated to inspiring a civic dialogue about the science of drug use and addiction among youth. Launched by scientists at the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the event aims to shatter myths about drugs by spotlighting what science has taught us about drug use and addiction, while elevating evidence-based strategies to promote substance misuse prevention and awareness in communities nationwide.

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This year, the week collides with an alternate universe created by Big Cannabis. Since late 2021, cannabis powerbrokers have unleashed a no-holds-barred offensive in hopes of extracting reduced taxes and regulation from local and state elected officials.

In their quest to expand the industry’s commercial footprint in cities and counties across the state, lobbyists have disseminated information that does not align with independent research conducted by the Public Health Institute, which tracks local laws, cannabis licenses, and market data. This data is supported by the National Institutes of Health and other research funders.

An op-ed published last month in CalMatters and republished in Times of San Diego is Exhibit A in Big Cannabis’ onslaught of misinformation. The commentary, written by the chief of government affairs at CannaCraft, is filled with misleading statements about the cannabis industry’s economic playing field.

Understanding the power of the printed word, researchers with Getting it Right from the Start, a nonprofit cannabis policy think tank, factchecked this misleading commentary. Their report — Setting the Record Straight: Fact-Checking Claims About California’s Legal Cannabis Industry — refutes the industry’s propaganda.

The op-ed starts from a groundless premise — that the regulatory framework guiding the rollout of California’s Proposition 64, the Adult Use of Marijuana Act, is flawed because it allows municipalities to opt out of licensing cannabis businesses. Consequently, the state has “precipitated the closure of thousands of medical cannabis dispensaries and the creation of ‘dry zones’ across the state.” This phenomenon, in turn, “has reduced access to medical cannabis and opened the door wider to the illicit market.”

At first glance, this argument against local control sounds reasonable, but it falls flat in the face of the misleading claims made in support. Here is a point-by-point fact check.

Fiction: “And yet, today, there are fewer licensed retail outlets in the state than there were in 2015.”

Fact: California’s legal retail cannabis infrastructure has been expanding steadily, reaching 1,485 retailers in February 2022. Furthermore, the state did not license retail cannabis outlets in 2015, so there is no accurate data on how many retail cannabis outlets there were in 2015.

Fiction: “Legal cannabis sales are declining, and an emboldened illicit market is growing.”

Fact: The legal cannabis market in California is thriving. Dollar sales on the legal market are rising steadily and increased by 249% between implementation of Proposition 64 in 2018 and 2021. Although there is no way to determine the actual size of the illicit market, most experts agree it is growing. This growth, however, is driven largely by vast overproduction, much of it for export.

Since operating an illicit cannabis business will always have less overhead and government oversight than operating a regulated business, curbing this growth will not be solved by reducing taxes or regulation. A more likely outcome will be a failure to protect public health through regulation of the legal market.

Fiction: “Despite popular approval of Prop. 64, only 85 of the state’s 500 municipalities allow retail cannabis sales.”

Fact: A total of 281 of California’s 539 cities and counties, or 52% of municipalities, allow retail cannabis sales either at storefronts or by delivery, and approximately 60% of California residents reside in these jurisdictions.

Fiction: “Today there are a mere 800 or so licensed cannabis retailers in the state. That means California has just two legal dispensaries for every 100,000 residents while other long-established recreational markets (Oregon and Colorado) have 7 to 9 times that many.”

Fact: There are now 1,485 licensed cannabis retailers in the state for a ratio of 1 licensed retailer per 26,422 residents, higher if considering only areas which allow legal sale. In the interest of protecting the health of youth and children from aggressive marketing, Getting it Right from the Start’s Principles for Cannabis Regulation recommend that ratio not exceed 1 licensed retailer per 19,000 inhabitants.

Integrity, transparency, and accountability drive public policies designed to benefit the public good. In a representative democracy, where our elected officials are expected to make informed, quality-of-life decisions on behalf of their constituents, the truth is paramount.

National Drug and Alcohol Facts Week is a reminder of the fragility of truth in the hands of people who place the prerogative of profit before the power of us.

SAY San Diego’s Central Region Prevention Coalition is a neighborhood advocacy network spanning the San Diego’s Mid-City and Southeastern regions. Comprised of parents, youth, educators and businesses, the neighborhood alliance advocates for public policies that protect children from predatory industries and promote community health, equity, and resilience.