California Cities: Prohibition Doesn’t Work

California has a population of nearly 40 million, six years of cannabis licensing, but only has about 1,200 licensed dispensaries. These stores are mostly spread out in highly populated areas like Los Angeles, San Francisco, and so on. The problem is that many California cities still prohibit cannabis licensing, even in places where a majority of the locals approved the state’s recreational cannabis program in 2016. This is a massive problem and is one of the key reasons the illegal market thrives. Let’s look at why that is the case and what these cities can do to change it.

Why prohibition doesn’t work

When the government prohibits something, there is an existing market for that thing, and a fear on the part of the government (justifiable or otherwise) that failure to prohibit it would lead to some kind of societal harm. Because there is an existing market for the thing, there is necessarily some kind of demand for it. If the government bans the thing, some people will realize that the potential cost (prison, fines, stigma, etc.) outweighs the benefit, and demand will go down.

But others will find that the benefit outweighs the potential cost, no matter how high it is — which is why people still roll the dice in countries like Singapore that will execute drug traffickers. So while prohibition may decrease demand, it won’t end it. And so long as there is some demand, again, some people will roll the dice.

This is exactly what has happened in the decades since cannabis was prohibited. If prohibition were an effective deterrent, then you would expect there not to be a high level of use or incarceration. But we’ve seen the opposite. There have been millions of people arrested and incarcerated for violating the Controlled Substances Act and state-law counterparts. It’s pretty clear then that these laws don’t have their intended effects, which brings me to the next point.

What problems are California cities creating?

When California voters passed the state’s flagship recreational licensing law in 2016, California cities were given an immense amount of control over the new industry. Perhaps realizing the initiative would face strong opposition if it took power away from cities, the drafters included provisions that allowed California cities to completely ban cannabis activities within their limits. These provisions led to local bans in vast swathes of the state.

While cities have slowly “come online” over the years, there are still vast swathes of the state without legal access to cannabis. In fact, many cities even sued the state when it tried to officially sanction statewide delivery rules. What this means is that there are still many California cities that prohibit cannabis.

If those cities are trying to eliminate local cannabis markets, I’ve got a bridge to sell them. Prohibition didn’t work before the state legalized cannabis, and it certainly won’t work when the state won’t lift a finger on enforcement. California cities that keep their bans alive are only bolstering their illegal markets and making it more difficult for the legal market to survive.

What California cities should be doing to combat the illegal market

I recently corresponded with Hirsh Jain of Ananda Strategy, who believes that the state needs 4,000 to 5,000 dispensaries to carry the legal market. And those dispensaries shouldn’t just be in Los Angeles or San Diego. They’d need to be dispersed across the state so that people have access and the legal dispensaries could compete with the illegal ones (and ideally put them out of business). If more California cities don’t end prohibition, illegal dispensaries and delivery services will continue to operate whether they like it or not.

That said, there are other things that California cities can do to combat the illegal market without allowing brick-and-mortar sales. One big one would be to allow outside delivery services to deliver into their borders. While the state did pass a law attempting to expand statewide access to medical cannabis deliveries, that fails to include the much larger recreational market. It also likely excludes potential medical cannabis purchasers who don’t want to or don’t have the resources to obtain a physician’s recommendation or medical marijuana ID card (MMIC).

Expanding retail deliveries would be a win-win for the legal market and cities alike. Yet for some reason, California cities fought it tooth and nail. While those cities may have thought they won, the real victory belonged to the illegal market, which continues to grow and grow.


If the legal market is to survive, California cities are going to have to make compromises when it comes to cannabis prohibition. After all, cannabis is still being sold within their borders. For some of my thoughts on California’s problematic illegal market, check out these posts:


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