Act NORML: Contra Costa Cannabis

California has 58 counties; the Greater San Francisco Bay Area boasts eight. No two counties are the same, though the common denominator in all 58 counties is the ubiquitous marijuana consumer, whether he, she or they lives in San Diego, San Jose, Stockton, Santa Rosa or a more-distant outpost of the Golden State’s marijuana empire.

For several years, I’ve followed the fortunes and misfortunes of cannabis in Contra Costa County, which borders, on one side, liberal Berkeley and multiracial Oakland, and, on the other side, the conservative-leaning Central Valley.

Greg Kremenliev, my primary information source, serves as the co-director of the Contra Costa chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). A longtime cannabis advocate and cannabis aficionado, Kremenliev describes Contra Costa—where he lives and works—as a kind of “appendage” to the Bay Area. I think of it as a typical California county: not really friendly, and not totally hostile, to weed.

Almost all of the cannabis consumed in Contra Costa is cultivated outside the county, which has a population of just over one million people. Richmond, on the west side, boasts three dispensaries. Antioch, on the east side, has three. Martinez, the county seat, has one: the upscale “Velvet Cannabis,” Kremenliev’s favorite, because, as he tells me, “it’s community-oriented, upscale and we had to fight to get it.”

There are large areas of the county where no cannabis can be legally bought and sold. Users drive to Oakland and Berkeley to buy products, then drive home and consume.

“In Contra Costa, the application process for a legal dispensary pits cannabis people against one another,” Kremenliev tells me. It’s the old divide-and-conquer strategy, which slows down and often frustrates efforts to legalize and normalize weed. Fire departments in Contra Costa use their rules to hold back licenses. The game plan local officials have adopted makes cannabis advocates fight like hell for every inch.

“There hasn’t been a big, clean, clear victory,” Kremenliev tells me. “It’s a constant battle with little triumphs along the way.” The driving force for change has been the local chapter of  NORML, which celebrated its 50th anniversary this year. NORML is still going strong, from the Bay Area to Vermont, which voted this year to legalize medical and adult use of cannabis.

“In Contra Costa, older citizens and women have played key roles in the fight for marijuana,” Kremenliev says. “We make it up as we go along because there are no clear models to follow.”  

Jonah Raskin is the author of “Marijuanaland: Dispatches from an American War.”

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