Richmond Cannabis Forum plans for Green Rush

Richmond Cannabis Forum plans for Green Rush
California State Treasurer Fiona Ma speaks on a panel alongside Richmond police Sgt. Nicole Abetkov at the Cannabis Forum at CoBiz Richmond on June 5, 2019.

Ready or not, the Green Rush has struck Richmond.

Eight cannabis cultivators and two cannabis manufacturers have begun operating in Richmond since the City Council lifted a ban on such activities in 2016. Another 10 cultivators and 3 manufacturers have been approved and are prepping to begin operations. Of those businesses, six were approved this year, including an 18-acre marijuana production facility set to feature 44 greenhouses, a nursery, processing center, and cafe/office/meeting center at Richmond Parkway and Goodrick Avenue.

There are also three marijuana dispensaries, the maximum allowable in the city, and city staff is proposing that a fourth, non-storefront dispensary be able to open and offer deliveries.

Indeed, it has been a Green Rush. Are we prepared for it?

On Wednesday morning, over 150 business and community leaders joined cannabis entrepreneurs, local law enforcement representatives and California State Treasurer Fiona Ma at a Cannabis Forum hosted by the Richmond Chamber of Commerce at CoBiz Richmond, located in the new, modern groundfloor space adjacent to the Downtown Richmond BART station parking garage.

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The Forum was a first for the city. It was also the first major event held at CoBiz Richmond, a new business incubator and networking space for local entrepreneurs, businesses and nonprofits launched with help from a $1 million grant from Chevron’s eQuip Richmond economic revitalization initiative.

CoBiz CEO Wesley Alexander addresses the crowd at the Cannabis Forum at CoBiz Richmond on June 5, 2019.

In the summer of 2016, the City Council lifted the ban on marijuana cultivation and manufacturing, aiming to bring the black market industry in Richmond into compliance and to generate revenue for the cash-strapped city. The council action anticipated the legalization of recreational marijuana in California, which became effective in January 2018.

With city and state regulations changing often and swiftly —  and with cannabis remaining illegal at the federal level — the process of starting up a cannabis business is anything but simple. Richmond Chamber of Commerce President James Lee said he wants to help pave over the difficult path for local small businesses and entrepreneurs by connecting them to the right people in the private and public sectors. That was, in part, the Forum’s intention. Lee views the city’s proliferation of marijuana businesses as an economic driver.

“When the city prospers, the people prosper,” he said.

Lee said he used to be against cannabis. On Tuesday, he told attendees his views changed after his son attempted to commit suicide years ago. Lee said marijuana helped in his son’s struggles, and that the experience changed his views on the plant.

Richmond Chamber of Commerce President James Lee introduces the crowd to the panel at the Cannabis Forum at CoBiz Richmond on June 5, 2019.

“I think I was more thrown into this,” Lee said, and now that it’s a legal industry in Richmond, “I want to make sure small businesses are protected. And I want to help small businesses get through the process in getting their licenses.”

Wednesday’s Forum included a panel discussion featuring City of Richmond Senior Planner Lina Velasco, who went over aspects of city regulations and the permitting process, Richmond police Sgt. Nicole Abetkov, who talked in part about how illegal grows continue to attract criminal activity to neighborhoods, and attorney Daniel Butt, who represents local cannabis businesses in the city and touched on the process of establishing them.

Attorney Daniel Butt, who provides legal help to cannabis businesses in Richmond, participates in a panel at the Cannabis Forum in Richmond on June 5, 2019. Also participating is City of Richmond Senior Planner Lina Velasco (left).

Also on the panel was Ma, who talked about the state’s difficulty at meeting the demand to license businesses, collect tax revenue and to enforce regulations, particularly when marijuana remains illegal at the federal level. Cannabis businesses are forced to operate predominantly in cash since the federal restrictions made it very difficult to have a bank account or to hire an accountant or payroll services, Ma said.

Last month, the state dramatically slashed its marijuana tax revenue projections over these issues, according to the LA Times. Many consumers are also sticking with the black market to avoid paying high taxes, the newspaper added.

Gov. Gavin Newsom has stated it would take a half-dozen years for the legal market to reach its potential. At Wednesday’s Forum, Ma said the state budget under the Newsom administration will include extra state staffing in licensing and enforcement. She also pointed to the legislation aiming to establish state-chartered banks that will service cannabis-related businesses.

The Forum won’t be the first such meeting in Richmond, Lee said. Expect a countywide Cannabis Summit in the near future.

While many areas of the state and nation are behind the times in this burgeoning industry, Richmond and its Chamber of Commerce are touted as pioneers.

At the new CoBiz Richmond on Wednesday, perhaps the greatest effort was not getting the businesses started, but getting the conversation started on how the local community can economically benefit from the ever-evolving, highly lucrative industry.

“The conversation we’re having today, is the type of conversation we want to have at this space,” CoBiz Richmond CEO Wesley Alexander said. “We want to bring the influencers, the entrepreneurs, the leaders of the community to this space to address topics that affect this community, economically, socially, educationally, politically, and environmentally.”

Contra Costa District Attorney Diana Becton speaks at the Cannabis Forum at CoBiz Richmond on June 5, 2019.