Op-Ed: ‘Quiet tsunami’ of marijuana cultivators using up Richmond warehouse spaces

San Pablo questions proposed cannabis operation in Richmond

Op-ed, David Schoenthal (first published Oct. 1, 2017 in the Richmond Pulse):

Three years ago, I was on Richmond’s Economic Development Commission and was shown a list of vacant warehouses. We debated what would be the best types of business to attract to Richmond. Some said tech companies, some said health care and some said food manufacturers. No one at that Economic Development Commission said, “Let’s bring in marijuana cultivators.”

But with the advent of legalization, Richmond’s need to fill the holes of its budget shortfalls and the progressive-dominated City Council, there has been a quiet tsunami of marijuana cultivators using nearly every inch of warehouse space in Richmond.

In the last 20 years, San Francisco, San Mateo, Palo Alto and Oakland have all seen an influx of highly paid workers due to the influx of jobs requiring employees with specific skills. The technology industry has changed the face of the Bay Area just like the Gold Rush changed California and WWII changed Richmond, with a massive influx of people coming to the area.

In Richmond, gentrification raises the same red flags. Homeless, human rights organizations and progressive groups argue that gentrification displaces people living below the poverty line and that we need policies like rent control to stem the tide of the rising costs of places to live.

But with all the focus on the tech industry, I have heard little to no discussion about the types of jobs marijuana cultivators bring to the community. While I am sure there are some very talented home growers, these enterprises are large, well-funded and, like the technology industry, require a highly skilled work force.

Where will these new workers go to live? Richmond has not been able to create much, if any, new housing in the last decade, let alone affordable housing.

Richmond currently has only one project for 200 units currently in the pipeline that meets the affordable housing criteria for moderate low income. This project would focus on teachers, firefighters and police officers.

As part of the equation, Richmond needs to bring on more housing of various types to lessen the overall burden on the housing market.

Meanwhile, progressives in Richmond are setting the table for the marijuana industrial complex to have a community bank to place their money.

A community bank has a long list of benefits, but they don’t include guaranteeing anyone a job from the new marijuana cultivators who will be the bank’s new clients. This new industry and bank are not going to stop displacement of the low-income earners. This new industry is not providing any guarantees that they will hire union workers or allow for unions to be formed in their facilities. In fact, without being highly conscious and intentional with specific plans of what the marijuana industry will provide, we are doomed to make the very same mistakes made by the technology industry.

We are already seeing the first signs of how the marijuana industrial complex can begin to push people out. We have lost small businesses like Jered’s Pottery which recently moved to Emeryville, and Jane’s Inc. I know of other businesses that want to grow and stay in Richmond but can’t because there just isn’t enough space here.

The current City Council has not offered any viable strategic plan for allowing the creation of new buildings for businesses. How many do we need based on population? What types of housing do we need? Where do we need them? When do we want to have them completed? These are just a few of the strategic questions we need to have in a three, five and 10-year strategic plan for housing. A general plan is great to have as a larger vision but within that general plan there ought to be some strategic plans for housing and economic development.

The technology landscape has rapidly and dramatically shifted our economy away from manufacturing and has left people in the Midwest holding an empty bucket. It has created a massive chasm between the haves (highly skilled technology workers) and the have-nots (manufacturing workers).

Be careful. What seems like a good idea may not be the case. We need to be far more thoughtful and strategic about how we work with the new marijuana industrial complex if we are truly looking out for the most vulnerable in our society. The tide is rising, and with it we must be able to lift all boats.

David Schoenthal is president of the Point Richmond Neighborhood Council, chair of the Richmond Chamber of Commerce’s Economic Development Committee, and a Community Organizer.


  1. One scarcely knows where to begin in response to the scattershot of notions contained in this piece. Let’s begin by stating that when you use an absurd term like “marijuana industrial complex,” you reveal not only your opinion of, but your ignorance about California’s already thriving cannabis industry, which has been a part of the state’s economy since it was legalized medically in 1996. If there is to be a “marijuana industrial complex,” it will come to you courtesy of Big Pharma, which has already shown a desire to prevent federal legalization, as it would cut into their deadly pill trade.

    Cannabis is now fully legal in California. Its economy is currently valued at about $7 billion per year. Richmond would be INSANE to shove its head into the sand and turn down the opportunity to be part of a growing industry that is already providing good-paying jobs to the community. Entry-level positions at dispensaries typically start at above the minimum wage.

    The cannabis industry can not be compared to the tech industry. It is more comparable to a hybrid of manufacturing–or farming–and retail. Once more, the author demonstrates his ignorance. Again, what is the point of this piece? If it is to urge us to “be careful,” then let us do so and regulate and restrict the number of cannabis operations, both wholesale and retail, that are allowed to operate in Richmond so as to be of maximum benefit to Richmond.

    To wring one’s hands and state that the workers in the industry will have no place to live is disingenuous. The Bay Area has many other cities if Richmond can’t find the will to build more housing. It is not a requirement of most jobs that the employees live in the city in which they work. And why must the jobs be “union” in order to be considered beneficial or desired?

    Richmond should find a way to participate in and benefit from a $7 billion dollar a year legal industry, but with attitudes such as the author’s, and a history of our city government making the wrong decisions for Richmond, I have my doubts.

  2. Catherine, well said, thank you. Be a part of the new economy, or be late to the supper. Times change, and we are in the swirling vortex right now.

  3. Catherine, Thank you for your comments. I think having a thriving cannabis industry is a great thing. I just don’t think Richmond has fully thought about how to properly handle it.

    I use the term “maurijana industrial complex” to describe the enterprises that are here as well funded, cash in hand, using high technology to launch quickly. I know of one cultivator that will be able to grow 24/7-365 days a year. Big pharma is already deeply involved in the industry as this 2016 article points out:


    To your point, we need to have cogent policies that don’t leave us holding the bag. The income will disappear into the General Fund. When it should be deployed for specific purposes like business development and housing strategies.

    You are right as well that no industry has to guarantee housing or any particular types of jobs to anyone. But this particularly fast moving industry is pushing people out and the very politicians who profess to care about workers and helping people stay in their homes without increasing their rent are handing over the keys to the city while the displacement happens. Income ought to be targeted for programs like public-private partnerships to build housing for low income families, pave the streets, fix our infrastructure and help the homeless off of the streets.

    The point I make about the community Bank is that the RPA lead council wants to set up a community bank in order to help the pot growers have a place to park their money. This will indeed allow them.to grow and prosper, however the clear examples I give of small to medium sized businesses being pushed out of the market because manufacturing space is now at at all time low. This is similar to the retail housing market. These are the flags of gentrification that are decried by the same RPA leaders. Yet they are the ones setting the table for this industry to literally take over Richmond without safeguarding the people they claim to care about.

    To your point about the good paying jobs for dispensary workers, the city is not handing out dispensary licences they are permitting pot cultivators. The types of workers in their high tech cultivation facilities are highly skilled and thus highly paid. I would like to see jobs training schools for these types positions. Why not create a marijuana University?

    Tom is spot on… We are indeed in a swirling vortex. As I see it we are in over our heads unless we put some serious policies together to handle it.

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