Pubdate: Sun, 19 Mar 2017
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2017 The New York Times Company
Author: Thomas Fuller


SANTA ROSA, Calif. - In the heart of Northern California's wine
country, a civil engineer turned marijuana entrepreneur is adding a
new dimension to the art of matching fine wines with gourmet food:
cannabis and wine pairing dinners.

Sam Edwards, co-founder of the Sonoma Cannabis Company, charges diners
$100 to $150 for a meal that experiments with everything from
marijuana-leaf pesto sauce to sniffs of cannabis flowers paired with
sips of a crisp Russian River chardonnay.

"It accentuates the intensity of your palate," Mr. Edwards, 30, said
of the dinners, one of which was held recently at a winery with
sweeping views of the Sonoma vineyards. "We are seeing what works and
what flavors are coming out."

Sonoma County, known to the world for its wines, is these days a
seedbed of cannabis experimentation. The approval of recreational
cannabis use by California voters in November has spurred local
officials here to embrace the pot industry and the tax income it may

"We're making this happen," said Julie Combs, a member of the Santa
Rosa City Council, who is helping lead an effort to issue permits to
cannabis companies. "This is an industry that can really help our region."

Of the many ways in which California is on a collision course with the
Trump administration, from immigration to the environment, the state's
enthusiastic embrace of legalized and regulated marijuana may be one
of the biggest tests of the federal government's power.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions has equated marijuana with heroin and,
on Wednesday, mentioned cannabis in the context of the "scourge of
drug abuse."

"I reject the idea that America will be a better place if marijuana is
sold in every corner store," he said. "And I am astonished to hear
people suggest that we can solve our heroin crisis by legalizing
marijuana, so people can trade one life-wrecking dependency for
another that's only slightly less awful."

To the ears of many in California and other states where marijuana use
has been legalized to varying degrees, the stigma Mr. Sessions
attaches to cannabis feels like a holdover from the distant past.

Marijuana, which has been legal for medicinal purposes in California
for two decades, can be ordered online for home delivery in the
state's largest cities. A former mayor of Oakland, Jean Quan, recently
applied to open a marijuana dispensary in San Francisco.

The industry is already immense. Arcview, a company that conducts
cannabis research, estimates that the California market alone is worth
$7 billion.

America's divided views on cannabis have produced a strange and uneasy
stalemate. Recreational use is legal in eight states, including all
those along the West Coast. At the same time, state governments are
watching closely for hints on what the Trump administration plans to

In the past, the federal authorities have destroyed fields and
prosecuted growers. Federal law still calls for a minimum prison
sentence of five years for growing more than 100 marijuana plants,
although under the Obama administration, the law was enforced only in
cases involving violence or gangs.

The White House spokesman, Sean Spicer, recently warned of the
possibility of "greater enforcement" against recreational use of marijuana.

Those working in the industry are constantly reminded of the federal
government's power to intervene in their business dealings, including
severely limiting their access to the banking system.

"They can come in and ruin your whole life," said Mr. Edwards, the
marijuana entrepreneur. "They can throw you in prison, take your property."

Yet, like so many others in the cannabis industry here - there are an
estimated 9,000 growers in Sonoma County - Mr. Edwards is pressing
ahead with his company, which specializes in growing and selling
pesticide-free cannabis products. And he is planning more cannabis and
wine pairing dinners.

"History favors the bold," he said.

His business's name, Sonoma Cannabis Company, makes no attempt to hide
what industry he is in.

Some are skeptical that the Trump administration has the wherewithal
to carry out a widespread crackdown on such a huge industry in
America's most prosperous state.

"I think it's kind of doubtful right now, looking at the Trump
administration," said Terry Garrett, a manager at Sustaining
Technologies, a marketing company that researches the cannabis market
in Sonoma County. "Let's see them do health care first, round up
immigrants, build a wall."

Hezekiah Allen, the executive director of the California Growers
Association, a cannabis industry group, said the mood among growers
was a mixture of excitement and anxiety. Their primary concerns at the
moment have more to do with local tax rates than possible federal
intervention, he said.

A ballot measure that passed this month in Sonoma clears the way for
the county to issue permits, a big step in bringing the industry out
of the shadows.

The policy, known as Measure A, favors small-scale artisanal growers
by taxing the acreage under cultivation rather than tonnage and by
charging lower rates for smaller plots. But it also gives the county
wide latitude to raise taxes without further voter approval.

Even at the lowest rates, state and county taxes add up to half the
gross income of a typical grower, Mr. Allen said.

"At the highest rates, the tax would be a de facto prohibition," he

The combination of high taxes and the threat of federal intervention
could push growers back underground, Mr. Allen and others say. And
many regulations still need to be written before the full rollout of
recreational marijuana in California.

"Generally speaking, I'm feeling encouraged," Mr. Allen said. "But
it's a huge, huge experiment."
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