.Sausalito’s cannabis dispensary ballot measure stirs controversy

My head was spinning after speaking to the supporters and opponents of Sausalito’s ballot initiative on cannabis. And I wasn’t even high.

Sausalito voters will decide on Measure K in the Nov. 8 election. If approved, the initiative repeals the ban on cannabis businesses and allows business licenses for one cannabis retail store and one cannabis delivery service.

Currently, a Sausalito ordinance bars all medical, recreational, commercial and delivery cannabis businesses, although delivery services based outside the city are permitted to drop off products to anyone 21 or older.

A “yes” vote on the measure scraps the city’s current prohibitions on marijuana sales and paves the way for two cannabis businesses. Vote “no” and keep the status quo. Majority vote wins.

While it seems straightforward enough, the initiative has brought out impassioned opponents, including past and present elected officials and a cross-section of Sausalito residents.

The “Measure K is Not OK” folks have a long list of objections, beginning with Otter Brands LLC, the company behind the ballot initiative. The opponents maintain that Otter Brands is Big Cannabis and doesn’t belong in Sausalito, a small city with a population of around 7,200.

One of Otter Brand’s three partners, Conor Johnston, owns Berner’s on Haight, a successful retail cannabis store in San Francisco. Long-time Sausalito resident Karen Cleary is the initiative’s sponsor. Chris Monroe owns CrossFit Sausalito.

Johnston acknowledged in an interview with the Pacific Sun that the three partners and their attorney wrote the 14-page initiative, which contains extremely specific requirements that companies must meet to qualify for either of the two cannabis business licenses that would be up for grabs, provided Measure K passes.

Interestingly, Measure K requires that one owner live in Sausalito; one owner have experience managing, operating or owning a business in the city; and one owner have experience managing, operating or owning a storefront cannabis retail business in California. Sound familiar?

“Measure K seeks to prioritize people with connections to the local community,” Johnston, who lives in Seattle, said. “We don’t see that as a weakness.”

Perhaps another company might be able to meet those requirements. But the field of qualified applicants will greatly diminish when considering that, prior to April 21, 2021, the business must have submitted a detailed draft development agreement to the city and met individually with at least three current or then-current city council members to express interest in opening a retail cannabis store.

There are other conditions, too, that needed to be met 17 months ago. Without a time machine, it’s virtually impossible for another company to qualify for the retail store license, leaving Otter Brands in the catbird seat. Yet Johnston refused to admit that the initiative shuts out competitors from the process, pointing to a provision in Measure K that states if no company qualifies, a less restrictive set of requirements comes into play.

That scenario could materialize if Otter Brands failed to receive a state license for a cannabis retail store, Johnston said. However, Otter Brands’ partners have worked for almost five years to get Measure K on the ballot, making it hard to imagine they haven’t dotted all their i’s.

Otter Brands won’t be vying for the delivery license, according to Johnston. Under state law, cannabis retail dispensaries can also deliver cannabis goods. Conceivably, there could be two delivery services located in Sausalito.

The ballot initiative also dictates the operation regulations for the cannabis retail dispensary and the delivery service. Sausalito City Councilmember Ian Sobieski opposes Measure K because the council will essentially lose control of determining policy for cannabis businesses operating in the city.

“An important detail everyone should consider—if passed, Sausalito City Council will be prohibited from issuing any tweaks or changes to how retail cannabis is administered in our town,” Sobieski said in an email. “Any unforeseen problems that require changes will have to wait for, and be contingent upon the slow, cumbersome and expensive process of future ballot initiatives. This is no way to manage the affairs of our town.”

Some naysayers object to Otter Brands’ lack of diversity ownership. California’s Proposition 64, which passed in 2016, legalized marijuana use for adults and retail sales. While Prop 64 doesn’t require social equity among marijuana retail store owners, the state encourages it by providing incentives, such as fee waivers and technical support, to people harmed by cannabis criminalization, which includes a disproportionate number of the Black population. Otter Brands’ three partners are white.

Sausalito resident Allison Behr is outspoken about her opposition to passing Measure K. Behr said she struggled with marijuana addiction, yet she doesn’t disapprove of marijuana use for adults. One of her primary concerns is that a cannabis retail store may target underage youth.

Johnston’s existing cannabis retail store in San Francisco and its website carry youth-oriented products, according to Behr. She fears an Otter Brands retail location in Sausalito may carry the same goods, such as a popular strain of marijuana called Cookies and backpacks designed to hide the smell of weed from parents and teachers. Still, Behr wouldn’t mind a cannabis storefront in Sausalito if it had sufficient regulations to protect people under 21, but she doesn’t believe Measure K provides such protections.

Behr cited a litany of other objections to the measure and Otter Brands, including an inadequate amount of annual revenue guaranteed to the city, the store’s proximity to schools and parks, and traffic and parking issues.

Measure K provides that the retail store must pay Sausalito $50,000 or 7.5% of net profits in revenues, whichever is greater. Behr is convinced Sausalito will never receive more than the guaranteed minimum.

“It would be easy for Conor Johnston to shelter his net profits so that whatever he pays won’t be more than the $50K minimum,” Behr said.

Johnston scoffs at the accusations. The measure he co-authored requires that the storefront be 1,000 feet from schools, which is more than state law dictates, and no one under 21 will be permitted inside the store, according to Johnston. In addition, the measure states that the selected retail store commits to providing $300,000 in community benefits over the first five years, which could include donations to nonprofits.

Behr remains unconvinced. Cannabis retail is complex and has many cons, especially with the way Measure K is written, according to Behr.

“We need to educate our community about cannabis and this initiative,” Behr said. “People need to make a choice based on the facts.”

Nikki Silverstein
Got a Hero or a Zero? Please send submissions to [email protected] Toss roses, hurl stones with more Heroes and Zeroes at pacificsun.com.

7 COMMENTS

  1. Good article.

    Oregon has the Liquor and Cannabis Commission, which regulates recreational cannabis. California has its Bureau of Cannabis Control. How is California regulating this proposed business in small towns like Sausalito?

    I believe recreational cannabis businesses should be regulated just the same as liquor stores.

    I first learned about this cannabis business for Sausalito when all households in town were we sent a postcard by fellow resident and cannabis store sponsor Karen Cleary. This postcard sought our sympathy, our empathy for an ill family member who sadly was suffering from great pain from a physical brain problem. Frankly, the post card led me to believe that the store was going to be a medicinal cannabis dispensary, period.

    This is all very disappointing.
    Sincerely,
    Judith Ann Fraser
    Sausalito, CA

    • Agreed, Megan – check out the Vice article, White Weed Entrepreneurs Game the System and you can see how Conor Johnston opened his San Francisco store, Berner’s on Haight. The irony is how he sued the City of Sausalito and Marin City’s Paul Austin – a true equity candidate with true local connections – to kick Austin’s competing cannabis initiative off the ballot!

  2. Agreed, Judith. But CA’s Bureau of Cannabis Control is a joke. It has a skeletal staff that doesn’t enforce their regulations. And Cleary and Conor Johnston’s claims they just want a small store for Sausalito seniors to access medical marijuana is also a joke. Just check out the Instagram feed of Johnston’s other store, Berner’s on Haight. He definitely isn’t marketing to SF seniors! His “Cookies” products – extracts, oils etc- and other strains (up to 100% THC!) are about getting a much younger demographic really, really high. This ain’t your grandma’s weed and Measure K ain’t what it seems. Sausalitans may be salty but they’re not stupid! 😏 Check out http://www.VoteNoToK.org and get yourself a yard sign and bumper sticker!

  3. Agreed, Judith. But CA’s Bureau of Cannabis Control is a joke. It has a skeletal staff that doesn’t enforce their regulations. And Cleary and Conor Johnston’s claim they just want a small store for Sausalito seniors to access medical marijuana is also a joke. Just check out the Instagram feed of Johnston’s other store, Berner’s on Haight. He definitely isn’t marketing to SF seniors! Their “Cookies” products – extracts, oils etc – and other strains (up to 100% THC!) are about getting a much younger demographic really, really high. This ain’t your grandma’s weed and Measure K ain’t what it seems. Sausalitans may be salty but they’re not stupid! 😏
    Check out http://www.VoteNoToK.org and get yourself a yard sign and bumper sticker!

  4. I saw a “NO ON K” button on a person today at the Chilli Festival.
    I asked her in a very nice way what “Measure K” was all about…??
    She unfortunately didn’t believe me that I didn’t know what it was !!!
    This went back and forth 3 times.
    Maybe at my age 73, I don’t deserve a simple answer like “It’s About The Cannabis Initiative etc. etc.
    I didn’t know.
    I wonder how many other Sausalito Citizens are unaware of what it is and what it means to the community, and their Families?? Do You know what it is, or will you wait until your in the ballot box voting?
    I suggest that the Citizens against Measure K, especially the ones wearing “ NO ON “, be kind and informative to someone inquiring what is “ NO ON K”.

  5. Hey there Wes. I was one of the people sharing information about Measure K at the Chili Cook-Off. I’m not sure of the best way to connect directly here but if you send an email via our VoteNotoK website, I can get your contact info for a call. You’re absolutely right in that so many Sausalito Citizens might be unaware of what Measure K is and our primary goal is to share the facts!

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