Are Marijuana Farmers' Markets Coming to a City Near You?

The primary obstacle to marijuana farmers' markets in places where weed is legal comes down to location, location, location.

Mar 27 2015, 5:22pm

Photo via Flickr user Phil Roeder

Last July, the city of Los Angeles bore witness to its first ever farmers' market for medical marijuana. For a population that prizes both locally grown produce and the dankest dope, this was a highly anticipated affair, as evidenced by an opening weekend turnout in the thousands and a deluge of local and national media coverage.

Organizers of the California Heritage Market promised wholesale prices for a wide array of weed-related products supplied by growers and manufacturers who were on-site to answer customers' questions. The vendors themselves, some of whom lacked relationships with LA dispensaries, had the chance to reach consumers directly while expanding their profit share (by circumventing dispensary middlemen). Patrons reported immense satisfaction with the Market's features, including "substantially reduced costs," greater variety within a single venue, and "accurate information" about the process of how their medicine is made, according to Cheryl Shuman, spokesperson for the Market and a nationally known cannabis entrepreneur.

Expanded transparency into pot farming methods is of growing interest to consumers now that legal cultivators are beginning to diversify their crop away from environmentally catastrophic indoor-grown bud in favor of sun-grown, organic varieties. But the demise of LA's experiment suggests it may be a long time before most Americans can stroll to their local farmers' market and pick up some fresh weed on a lazy Sunday.

The social benefits of a pot farmers' market are arguably no different from those cited by advocates of the regular ones your parents dragged you to as a kid. The idea is to buy locally grown produce instead of less sustainable products shuttled from afar (like some NorCal-supplied LA dispensaries), support local businesses instead of corporations, and get legit facts from the actual farmer of your herb instead of an aloof, blazed bud-tender—or in your vegetables' case, an underpaid and therefore indifferent grocery store employee.

The most tangible benefit of farmers' markets for cannabis users is the access to better choices, especially when many patients are still figuring out precisely what strains and products best serve their psychological and medical needs. Customers of the LA market experienced these amenities firsthand, and the positive response led the Market's organizers to announce that they would be open every weekend thereafter.

Of course, that never happened.

The LA City Attorney's office obtained a restraining order to close the Market for purportedly being in violation of Proposition D, a measure passed in 2013 to cap the number of permitted dispensaries in the city. While California state law permits medical marijuana (MMJ) collectives to grow and sell cannabis to authorized patients, cities and counties have the legal latitude to regulate dispensaries as they see fit, resulting in a mess of rules and expectations for the medical marijuana industry across the state. This particular farmers market was actually developed and hosted by an outfit called West Coast Collective, which assured the public and media that their new project obeyed city rules: only those with doctor-issued prescriptions were allowed to enter, all participating vendors were registered members of West Coast Collective, and the Market was contained entirely indoors within the Collective's existing property.

But LA City Attorney Mike Feuer alleged that the Market did violate Prop D, in addition to lacking zoning approval and thereby creating "a public nuisance" and "safety issues." LA Superior Court Judge Joanne O' Donnell ruled on the case on August 27, finding that while the City Attorney's office had failed to provide any evidence that the market's organizers didn't receive zoning approval, West Coast Collective's managers had neglected to submit to criminal background checks, and thus "their operation of a medical marijuana business in any form is an unpermitted land use."

The operators of West Coast Collective are currently barred from participating in LA's MMJ industry in any form, and are facing hundreds of thousands of dollars in civil penalties unless they can convince the court that they're in compliance with Proposition D. Their attorney, David Welch, says the market's operators fulfilled background check requirements months ago, and are accordingly seeking an amended order from the court this Friday that would allow the Collective's original dispensary to reopen if the judge concurs. If she doesn't, a final ruling on the Collective's fate will take "six months to a year," Welch tells me.

While another legally compliant LA dispensary with enough square footage to host a farmers' market could theoretically emerge, it seems a safe bet that none will take the risk under the City's current anti-MMJ regime. Shuman figures it was the wide "publicity" they received that made them a target for city regulators.

Given the popular demand this market garnered from pot patients, it's surprising something similar wasn't attempted in LA earlier. After all, Americans are more familiar with the advantages of the farmers' market model than ever before—the number of farmers' markets has more than doubled in the past decade, driven by increasing demand for local, organic, and affordable produce. The primary obstacle for marijuana farmers' markets in places where weed is not completely illegal seems to be location, location, location: Traditional farmers' markets are open air and held on public property borrowed with the consent of local governments. But unless you and your friends get elected to city council, good luck getting permission to use the high school parking lot for a pot farmers' market.

Photo via Flickr user Abigail Batchelder

The prevailing social logic that insists legal minors be shielded from exposure to substances with potential for abuse means the use of public space and facilities won't be allowed for pot farmers markets anytime in the near future. This is why growlers of microbrew or homegrown rolling tobacco aren't found at farmers' markets, either, and why despite being grown just like many other vegetables, weed and its trade will most likely remain segregated to private venues for now.

Weedmaps founder Justin Hartfield learned that the hard way when he tried to persuade Boulder, Colorado, to allow pot farmers markets within zoned agricultural areas, only to be rebuffed by city regulators who said only agricultural goods grown outdoors were allowed to be sold at markets. Colorado's cannabis regulations require pot to be grown indoors so that underage users can't gain illicit access. While LA's pot farmers' market was in more ambiguous legal territory, city officials stoked this same concern when they claimed the California Heritage Market "interferes with the access to use of public property" (despite being held in a zoned industrial area and being located prescribed distances from schools, parks, rehab centers and places of worship).

But organizers in other states (even other parts of California) have surmounted the location problem by finding private accommodation, and customers of these cannabis farmers markets have celebrated all the same elements that made LA's so popular. Oregon and Arizona have both hosted weekly MMJ farmers markets without the legal controversy that consumed LA's experiment. Washington State is also home to several MMJ farmers markets, including the NW Cannabis Market open daily in Seattle.

Washington may serve as the first case study for whether farmers' markets can translate to recreational pot as opposed to the medical stuff. In Olympia, state legislators are currently debating several bills to revise the state's marijuana regulations, with the most widely supported version proposing combining the state's medical and recreational dispensaries under a single set of regulations. Currently, medical dispensaries in Washington are far less regulated than their recreational counterparts, and their cheaper, lesser taxed product and abundant locations have made it tough for recreational dispensaries to economically compete. As part of a strategy to enable recreational dispensaries to take over the market share held by "collective gardens" (Washington's term for medical grows and dispensaries), the new regulations would ban collective gardens from participating in farmers markets, prior to eventually phasing them out altogether.

Recreational pot growers in Washington are already prohibited from selling their product directly to consumers, which means that if the new regulations are passed, there will no longer be a legal way to convene farmers' markets for weed. This is bad news for Washington's medical patients, who've come to depend on the low prices and high quality offered by accessible medical farmers' markets. In a message on Northwest Cannabis Market's homepage from CEO Mike Keysor in December, he wrote that the prospect of new regulation has put their plans for expansion on hold. "These Markets have contributed to the 'Normalization' of this industry. They have performed well and deserve a spot in the new [regulations]," he added.

If the state has their way, medical users will still qualify for pot taxed at a lesser rate from state-licensed shops, but with a higher, government-imposed overhead cost than before. While the new regulations will likely come with a net financial loss for medical users, state officials believe standardizing regulations and prices is necessary to prop up recreational dispensaries while imposing enough tax to deter illegal resale.

Washington State and Los Angeles have embraced similar tactics to control their marijuana trades, tightly controlling geographic access and total supply to prevent possible social harms, whether organized criminals or stoned teenagers. But there will always be some intrepid souls who attempt to launch careers from the margins, in this case the black market. Finding physical space within a regulatory framework for pot farmers' markets to be legally convened would give cannabis cultivators who lack the legal or financial resources to start their own dispensary a legitimate means of reaching consumers, instead of being tempted by underground demand. Basically, farmers' markets could attract both pot growers and buyers who might otherwise look for cheaper, illegal deals.

But regulators of legalized marijuana continue to place a premium on the ability to maximally tax pot smokers as a way to prevent the purported effects of marijuana-driven crime and dependency—and to bolster state revenue. As pot's link to crime is increasingly challenged by sociological and scientific research, future generations may look back in confusion as to why dispensaries weren't treated more like local produce stands in the first place.

Bill Kilby is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. He recalls the California Heritage Market fondly.