Green, With Envy
Alameda cannabis groups are fighting industry heavyweights —and each other.
Photo by Mike Rosati
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Wearing a dark blue pinstriped suit and expensive loafers, Michael Nolin, founder of San Francisco’s well-known Green Door dispensary, stood near the lectern at an Alameda City Council special meeting on cannabis in early September. One of his colleagues, acting as a hype man, touted Nolin’s credentials and influence in the industry. The hype man then asked the overflow audience in the council chambers if any of its members have had positive interactions with Nolin in the past. A few hands raised, and Nolin stepped to the mic. He extolled the many virtues of having the cannabis industry come to Alameda, and while he never explicitly mentioned his own enterprise or whether he’s interested in one of Alameda’s potential permits in the future, the implication was clear.
In comparison to Oakland and Berkeley, Alameda is decidedly late in welcoming cannabis to its shores, and the immensely cutthroat and highly lucrative industry that thrives outside the Island seems destined to clash soon with at least two Alameda grassroots groups. The groups—Alameda Island Cannabis Community and Alameda for Safe Cannabis Access—are hoping to stem the influx of well-capitalized outside pot interests, including one perhaps fronted by Nolin, by proposing local preference guidelines in the city’s forthcoming cannabis ordinance.
“They’re the archetype of the outsider,” said Rich Moskowitz of Alameda for Safe Cannabis Access, referring to Nolin and other non-Alameda groups. “We’re not scared of them. I’m glad they showed up. It shows the council you should prioritize local ownership because we care more.”
Yet despite their shared opposition to off-Island cannabis interests, the two Alameda groups are far from united. Members of the organizations are expected to compete for cannabis permits in the city in the months ahead, and they’ve traded allegations of political favoritism, conflicts of interest, and stealing ideas from each other.
Moreover, the question of whether the local cannabis groups will get special treatment in Alameda is yet to be answered. Max Mikolonis, an ex-staffer for Alameda Assemblymember Rob Bonta, who helped craft the legislation that has become the basis of the state’s regulations on cannabis permitting and licensing, said city ordinances containing local residency preferences are not common in California. In addition, he said, they typically only emerge in cities with existing cannabis industries. Requiring exclusion of nonlocal applicants may also leave the city open to a lawsuit for discrimination, he said.
Alameda City Attorney Janet Kern stressed that the council is still in the early stages of crafting its cannabis regulations. “There are legal ways to provide some [local] preferences. It depends on how far,” she said. She added that strict residency rules—such as excluding applicants who have not lived in Alameda for the last three years (which was proposed by the Alameda Island Cannabis Community)—are problematic. Following the lead of Oakland, a more legally tenable guideline might be to give Alameda residents extra consideration for being local applicants.
There are also questions being raised about Mayor Trish Spencer’s allegiances after she appeared in a promotional video for the Alameda for Safe Cannabis Access group in July. The short video prominently featured the mayor and detailed her personal story as a breast cancer survivor. The video also focused on the need for chronically ill Alameda residents to have access to medical cannabis on the Island.
Sharon Golden, founder of the rival Alameda Island Cannabis Community, said Spencer’s video raises concerns about the mayor’s objectivity as the council moves forward with cannabis regulations and who receives permits. “It does look like a conflict of interest when one elected official is tied to one group,” said Golden, who founded her group in March. “She shouldn’t be voting for something she has already advocated for.”
Kern said that because the city council is only at the beginning of the legislative stage on cannabis, it’s unlikely that Spencer has violated any conflict of interest laws.