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In Defense of Weedmaps’ Fight with California

It’s hard to know who is the David and who is the Goliath in the dispute between the California Bureau of Cannabis Control (BCC) and the website Weedmaps, which provides information about marijuana dispensaries in legal states across the country. The conflict surrounds Weedmaps’ refusal to prevent users from posting information relating to so-called unlicensed marijuana businesses in the Golden State.

On Feb. 16, BCC chief Lori Ajax sent a threatening letter to Weedmaps that read in part: “Your website contains advertisements from persons offering cannabis and cannabis products for sale that are not licensed to conduct commercial cannabis activity; therefore, you are aiding and abetting the violation of state cannabis laws.” She subsequently stated that «such unlicensed businesses puts the public at risk as the health and safety provisions, such as testing, are not in place.”

Rather than acquiesce, Weedmaps shot a letter back on Mar. 12, calling on the state “to invite incumbent unlicensed operators into the light to be licensed to provide them opportunities to operate a legally compliant business… The fate of these unlicensed operators is critical to the success of the licensed operators; over 90% of the cultivators and manufacturers in the state are unlicensed (some would estimate even more) and retailers are set to face crippling shortages in products in the coming months. Scrubbing the Internet of the reality of unlicensed operators that have created thousands of jobs over the last 20 years does nothing to fix the underlying issues.”

In January, the state Department of Cannabis Regulations announced that all cannabis businesses under Section 11362.775 of the state Health and Safety Cod have until Jan. 8, 2019 to be licensed. But until then, unlicensed businesses can continue to operate under the sunset clause to Senate Bill 420, enacted in 2016. That clause protects all types of cannabis businesses—manufacturing, cultivation, distribution and testing, (except for volatile manufacturing of concentrates)—as long as they can claim they are a nonprofit collective.

«Weedmaps’ purpose is to provide information, which is protected by the First Amendment.»

Local governments, however, may, on their own, criminalize and create penalties for unlicensed marijuana activities, and most of California’s cities and counties have done so. In Los Angeles, the city attorney’s office has aggressively gone after anyone associated with any unlicensed business, including landlords, lawyers who handle the incorporation of nonprofit entities and even process servers. The city’s former ordinance, Prop D, was so complicated that all these professionals got caught up in violating it.

Weedmaps is more about freedom of information than cannabis regulations. It’s essentially a technology company like Facebook and Twitter. With possession of marijuana legal in California since 2017, Weedmaps is providing information, posted by users, about where this now-legal substance can be obtained. While some of these sources don’t have licenses, as far as state law is concerned, running an unlicensed business is still protected under the sunset clause until next year.

It’s a disservice to the gains made from marijuana legalization to start upping the ante for anyone associated with less than strict compliance. Freedom of information should not be infringed by the threat of prosecution for those trying to provide it about a legal substance and where people can find it.

Weedmaps should have no bias for or against any company, whether licensed or unlicensed, because its purpose is to provide information, which is protected by the First Amendment.

This article was written by Allison Margolin and June Choi. If you enjoyed this Freedom Leaf article, subscribe to the magazine today!