Pressing Policy: Councilman Herb Wesson talks about legalizing recreational marijuana in LA

California is the largest state to legalize cannabis for recreational use, and that sea change in drug policy brings special challenges for lawmakers in the City of Angels.

Social attitudes toward marijuana use have come a long way since cannabis decriminalization first appeared on a California state ballot in 1972, and the Golden State has been at vanguard of that change ever since.

California became the first state to legalize medical marijuana later in 1996 and again when it legalized recreational marijuana use in 2016. In the intervening 20 years, 32 other states legalized medical marijuana and recreational pot is legal in eight states and District of Columbia.

In 2018, Los Angeles City residents passed Measure M, which gives the city council the jurisdiction to enforce, tax and regulate LA's cannabis market. The city has since licensed 170 cannabis shops in various neighborhoods including Studio City, Hollywood and downtown, according to the LA Department of Cannabis Regulation.

As part of her "Pressing Policy" series, Morgan Stephens sat down with City Council President Herb Wesson, who also chairs the Rules, Elections and Intergovernmental Relations committee, which has overseen marijuana implementation in LA.

What are three things that come to mind when you think of cannabis policy in Los Angeles?


As we are moving into this era of adult-use legalization, I want to make sure that there are pathways for every group of individuals that have been affected by this. Pathways, so that they could be in this business in one capacity or the other.

Also, I think, just because it's my job. I think about revenue. Revenue to the local government, and how important it is that we get this revenue question right, so that we can generate enough revenue to deliver the services that the people of the city want, they need, and they expect.

If there is another thing that would come to mind. I would say, I would think this would need to be structured properly, where its uses would not adversely affect individuals that fear this new industry.

What is the ideal outcome for future generations?

We want to learn from prohibition. We want to help structure an official industry – one that affords everybody an opportunity to participate. One that does not adversely affect the surrounding community. I do believe that this industry is going to be a bazillion dollars, but I do think it's important the way that this rolls out because the better structured it is in the beginning, the better owners of these cannabis companies are.

If they're good neighbors, good business people, if they actually become partners with the community where they live, if they adhere to the law, I think this industry grows sooner. If they are the opposite, I think that would delay significantly the growth of this industry.

What needs to happen for you to achieve your policy objectives?

What we have to do is have a clear set of rules and regulations; do a lot of outreach to ensure that individuals understand what the rules are; and if we give them a very plain, common sense blueprint, I believe they would follow it.

It's the city's responsibility to make sure that we put that in place, and it's important to me that people in this state and city in particular realize that this was not some political, or government program. This was voted on by the residents of this state and the residents of this city. They instructed their government, they told us, they ordered me, to tax regulate and police this issue.

I want people to understand that we are attempting to do what we were instructed to do by them.

What has the process been like getting rules and regulations in city council? Challenges? Successes?

This was a very slow, methodical process. We met on this issue for almost two years. We had community hearings throughout the city of LA at different times of the day. We didn't have all our meetings at 10 o'clock in the evening because we wanted to reach out to all of LA to afford as many people the opportunity to come and give their opinion as we could.We had individuals who flew in from Colorado and from Washington to let us know about some of the things that occurred in their cities.

When we finally got to the point where we could roll it out, at least the beginnings of a program, I was very comfortable with it. I'm still very comfortable with it. We created a commission that is going to oversee individuals that are putting in applications to run business in the city of LA. We brought in a very experienced group of people to help us run the department of cannabis enforcement.

If there is one thing that maybe we didn't do as well as we could've, we could've staffed the department up sooner than we have. And right now what we're doing is to make sure we have enough bodies to help this roll out work efficiently and as smoothly as possible.

This industry again is brand new and you have to recognize when its something brand new, you need to be nimble because we have to make adjustments at a moment's notice. Up to this point, I'm pleased where we are, but there's a lot of work to do. This is a big challenge, but I believe the city of LA is up to this challenges.

What's your opinion on the decriminalization of marijuana?

There is a need for us to decriminalize. You see that happening within our state government as well. And not only is it important that you do whatever you have to do legally, you also have to work to change the mindset of individuals that live in the city of LA. When you look at the consumption rate, it's about the same where it relates to people from all different cultures. But when you look in the past where it relates to the arrest rate, it's higher in areas of color, and I believe that was by design.

It's time for us to do what we can to balance things out and in order to do what we have to to decriminalize a lot of these things.

Are there any cities you're looking toward for models of adult-use cannabis implementation?

We heard from Seattle and Denver. We heard about this from the state level, so we had representatives from those two states come in. We, however, are the largest state, and that not only does it on the medical side, but the adult-use side as well. So, there are always challenges. But we are Los Angeles and we always believe the winds in this country blow from the west to the east. So, people are looking at us to set an example. And we, in LA, accept that challenge.

Morgan Stephens is a journalist covering policy and politics at the University of Southern California. Her "Pressing Policy" series aims to make public policy accessible, engaging and transparent for a new generation of voters by sitting down with political leaders to talk about the issues they care about most.