‘A Lot of Eyes on Us’: A Q&A With LA’s City Council President

(Ringo H.W. Chiu/AP)

LOS ANGELES — LA’s cannabis market is one of the most competitive in the nation, and its relationship with the city government has at times been strained. But with the launch of California’s state-regulated market, City Councilman Herb Wesson sees an opportunity for the city to lead by example.

While he’s hardly a cannabis evangelist, Wesson recognizes the various benefits legalization can bring to a community, from jobs to tax revenue to increased personal freedom. As president of the Los Angeles City Council and chair of the city Rules, Elections and Intergovernmental Relations Committee, he plays an outsized role in overseeing LA’s fast-paced cannabis industry.

So far, he said in a recent interview, “I think we’ve done a good job and we’re making corrections as we go along.”

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Leafly contributor Hayley Fox sat down with the council president to discuss LA’s legal cannabis market, the city’s ongoing effort to bring equity to the industry, and how Wesson’s own experiences have helped shape his views.

Leafly: Do you think LA is going to be better off in general with legal cannabis than without it?

Wesson: Yes, for several reasons. I love this city, but this is a very demanding city. We, in my view, are the greatest city on the planet, but we have wants, we have needs, and we have desires, and in order for us to deliver the types of services that the people need in this region, we need resources. So, number one, this will help give the city additional resources so that we can try and deliver the services that the people need.

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Another thing is that I think it could create an industry that’s going to have a number of jobs, from your clerk in a retail store, to actually going to college and being some kind of biochemist/chemist, to landscaping. I also see a benefit for individuals that partake in this substance to buy it legally where they don’t have to be ashamed, they don’t have to slip around in the darkness.

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Industry people, they’re beginning to recognize that in order for them to be successful they’re going to have to be good partners with the community. So I anticipate that moving forward, you’ll see people from the industry sponsoring various community events and little league baseball teams and this and that. You know, the Buds and Roses Dodgers or something like that.

What’s your background in terms of cannabis legalization. Prior to all this happening here in LA, did you have any experience or involvement?

OK, here’s the story—and you can see my media person is panicking now, whenever I do that she’s like, “What the hell is he going to say? Oh, lord!” I’m trying to remember. My son Justin is 35, so he [would have been] about 4 years old, maybe 5. And one of my first cousins was married to, I want to say, the wife or the brother of the then-mayor of the city of Baltimore. His name was Schmoke or something like that. He was the very first vocal elected official that began talking about decriminalization of various substances.

I really believe that being on the outside of that conversation and paying attention to him—because I was in government at that time, I was a staff person—and listening to him, that’s what kind of made me think about all this. Then all of a sudden Colorado is on the ballot, and that’s when we knew that it was just a matter of time before this business or this industry would be in California for recreational or for adult-use.

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You oversee the city’s Rules Committee meetings, and over the last few years, there has been a lot of public input regarding cannabis regulation. What are some of the biggest things you’ve gleaned from that? And have you’ve gone out and visited any dispensaries?

Believe it or not, and this was just crazy on my part, but I did my first official tour of some of these facilities on 4/20. I visited some facilities in our region. About three weeks ago, or a month ago, I was in Oakland and visited Harborside and met a lot of the people that were associated with it. I’m a baby in this industry, and I’d like to think I’m like a dry sponge, so when I go out, I just suck all of this in.

What I’m learning is just how big all of this is. And how difficult it is to do everything at one time. I’ve been at hearings where [people say,] “Oh, we’ve got to have this and we’ve got to have that,” and I would tell the folk I get that, but we need to have a process. We need to build this model, we need to build this right. Like I said, shortly we’ll be looking into areas where people can legally go [and consume] and how would that work…

Like for on-site consumption?

On-site consumption. But we weren’t ready to do that then. We had to put other things in place.

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It seems as though the lack of staffing for city’s Department of Cannabis Regulation, and its director, Cat Packer, has caused significant delays for a lot of cannabis-related things in the city.

Yes, it has.

Was there no way to anticipate her staffing needs? What happened there?

I think part of it is, there was no way to know. And I’m not making an excuse. But I think, more importantly, that this is a brand-new industry. [I] don’t think that everybody— every Angeleno—is supportive. Sometimes you have to just continue to make progress. So I think we’ve moved as quickly as we could given the climate. And there’s some things that we could not foresee. I think we’ve done a good job and we’re making corrections as we go along.

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As for as the city’s social equity program is concerned, what are some safeguards in place? I know in Oakland and other places, there have been issues with moneyed folk coming in and partnering with social equity applicants, and not always with the best interest of their partners in mind.

We don’t want somebody to just come in and say, “Hey, this is Herb, my partner. I qualify for social equity.” We want to make sure that these are real partnerships. We have different categories, but we’ll be checking the incorporation documents, financial reports [and other indicators] to make sure that it’s just not a face, that this is a real partnership. What we want is to create opportunities so that individuals can actually be entrepreneurs and that they actually operate the business. I just don’t want you to come in and bring a face of color, and then a year later, that person is no longer part of the operation.

What about criminal justice issues?

When I was in college in the olden days, I was going back home for a funeral. I missed my flight. Thank god I did. My cousins and uncle were out that day in an old van, partying, playing Jimi Hendrix and “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” and Iron Butterfly, and they just happened to get stopped. It impeded the progress of my cousins’ and their college career. Had I not missed that flight, odds are I would have been with them. Which means I might not be sitting and talking to you right now.

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So if we can take individuals, eliminate that, and afford them an opportunity to do whatever they want, we want to do that. Because you have a record, there’s so many things you can’t partake in or that you can’t qualify for. So we want to do that and we want to do more.

I went to see state Assemblymember Reggie Jones-Sawyer as he became the first—or what he said was the first—publicly elected official to smoke weed in public. The point he was making, besides the actual spectacle of the thing, was that if we’re going to move forward with the legalization and destigmatization of cannabis, then there should be more public officials actually consuming. I’m curious what you think about that.

The beauty of being in California and the beauty of representing Los Angeles is that there are so many of us elected officials that see things from different perspectives. I commend Reggie for smoking with Melissa Etheridge and what have you. Trust me, you will not see me do that. You don’t want to see me do that. I think my job is to regulate, tax, and police. I see absolutely nothing wrong with other elected officials doing what they think is right. I view my role as to be the tip of the spear on this for the largest city in the country. And so I think I have to be a little more controlled, a little more focused, because I do believe there are a lot of eyes on us.

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