Just for Comparison: Availability of Alcohol vs. Cannabis in California

 Just for Comparison: Availability of Alcohol vs. Cannabis in California

Thanks to Swami of Swami Select for writing this insightful piece and sharing it with us!

The recent sharp descent of the wholesale price of cannabis in California is of great  concern. Beyond the exorbitantly punitive taxes and the excessively strict  regulations, the lack of places to buy or consume cannabis is a large part of the  problem.  

California has 58 counties, yet only thirty one allow commercial cultivation,  manufacturing, and or retail, while twenty seven counties have prohibited all legal  cannabis businesses. Of the 482 cities in the state, only 174 have approved of some  legal commercial cannabis activities, but a mere 114 cities allow retail sales. True,  those 31 counties and 174 cities allowing licensed cannabis businesses hold the  bulk of California’s population, but the underground or “traditional” market thrives  in those jurisdictions which outlaw legal cannabis. That is to say, by default 368  cities and 27 counties have approved of illegal cannabis sales in their neighborhoods. 

At the moment there are about 1300 cannabis retail licenses in the state. Around  800 are brick and mortar licenses and some of those operate stores in different  locations. There are also a number of micro-business licenses with retail  operations, and there are approximately 300 non-storefront delivery-only services.  These numbers are difficult to pin down because they keep changing, as one by  one, cities and counties come to their senses and open up to regulated cannabis  businesses, or on the other hand, permits expire, stores go out of business or are  bought out by competitors.  

With so few places to sell a bumper crop of cannabis, retailers keep driving the  prices down as the cultivators are more and more desperate to sell. This results in a  situation where the amount of the cultivation tax, which was just raised to adjust  for inflation, plus the cost of trimming the buds, as well as the distribution charges  and farm labor costs leave nothing left for the cultivator. 

It is instructive to compare the number of legal cannabis stores with the number of  places in the State of California where one can purchase and/or consume alcohol:  beer, wine and spirits. 

However, before going down the rabbit hole of statistics, it should be remembered  that, while there has never been a documented death solely caused by cannabis use,  drunk driving is the cause of 1066 traffic deaths annually in California and 11,026  annual deaths in the State are attributable to excessive alcohol use. 

There are fifty nine types of liquor licenses for purchase and /or consumption—for  beer only, for wine only, for beer and wine, or for beer, wine and spirits. CA liquor  licenses https://www.abc.ca.gov/licensing/license-types/ 

There are 4,765 bars and night clubs where you can drink, 6,122 liquor stores, and  1,959 supermarkets and grocery stores most of which sell some form of alcohol,  even if it is only beer or wine. These three categories alone comprise 12,846  venues for On-site and/or Off-site sales. This is ten times the number of places  where one can buy legal cannabis. 

Believe it or not, many gas stations with their affiliated convenience stores sell  beer or wine, even whiskey. There are 5,458 gas stations with convenience stores,  and I can see the advertisement now: “Get tanked while you tank up!” Drug stores  get into the act as well. California has about 5,600 drug stores, but not all of them  sell liquor, so it is not easy to tally their numbers. 

Adding these five categories together there are potentially 24,000 places to buy  alcohol, about 18 times the number of cannabis dispensaries.  

Looking further into it, a surprising number of other venues have the right to sell  alcohol and most allow on site consumption, many even allow minors to be  present, such as restaurants that have liquor licenses, or opera houses and theaters  and professional sports stadiums, which can sell and serve booze.  

Certain event licenses stipulate that one first buys a ticket and then exchanges that  ticket for a drink, kind of a wink/wink operation where you can’t “buy” booze  directly from the vendor, but it is for a good cause so they give you a workaround.  Some of these licenses are seasonal or temporary or event specific or for a limited  number of events annually. 

Here is a short list of the types of places that are allowed liquor licenses where one  can buy a drink: 

• restaurants; caterers

• fundraising events 

• clubs; veterans associations 

• trains; boats; airplanes; maritime museums with dock side ships • hospitals; convalescent homes; rest homes 

• theater companies (non profit); symphonies; opera houses 

• hotels and motels with service in guest rooms; Bed and breakfasts • portable bars; for profit cemeteries 

• event permit for event next to licensed premise 

• special permits for Napa theaters; wine and food cultural museums and  educational spaces 

• licensed wine grower farmer’s market, grapes entirely grown by winemaker • licensed wine grower event sales 

• wine growers in other states sell directly to California residents • farmers’ markets 

• The Limited Off Sale Wine License allows for the sale of wine to consumers for  consumption off the licensed premises. Sales are restricted to those solicited and  accepted via direct mail, telephone, or the Internet and may not be conducted  from a retail premises open to the public. 

• tasting license connected to off sale license 

So while there is no way of accurately calculating the number of On-site and Off site alcohol venues, the sheer variety of places is staggering. When you count  events, such as music festivals or fund raisers and then throw in sports stadiums,  the total must be at least hundred thousand places to buy booze. That is one  hundred times the number of places to purchase cannabis. 

However, in order to prevent “undue concentration” of liquor stores or bars in any  one neighborhood, California statute limits the number of state issued On-sale  General Liquor Licenses— selling beer, wine and spirits—to one for every 2,000  residents of a city or county, but for On-sale beer and wine sales only, mostly  restaurants, there is no state limit!! For Off-sale beer, wine and spirits, the limit is  one General License for 2,500 residents. For Off-sale beer and wine only, the limit  is one license for every 2,500 residents unless it is combined with an Off-sale  General License selling spirits as well, then the limit is 1,250.  

The number of On-site or Off-site venues allowed in a particular city or county and  the location of each is determined by the local jurisdiction through enforcement of  building codes and zoning ordinances. The only real limit is the so called “undue  concentration” of stores in a high crime area, but even that can be appealed. If a  city or county can demonstrate that having an additional Off-site or On-site venue would serve a “public convenience or necessity”, they may approve that new  license. 

Compare this to commercial cannabis which has a grand total of 1,300 stores and  delivery services and an undetermined number of consumption lounges, perhaps  fifteen or twenty. While the state has not put a limit on the number of cannabis  dispensaries, 47% of California counties forbid retail sales and 76% of California  cities prohibit retail sales. 

 Surely a business applying for a retail cannabis license can invoke the “public  convenience or necessity” clause, because not allowing legal regulated cannabis  clearly enables the illegal market to flourish and increases the crime in that  jurisdiction. Just as clearly, medical patients have a necessity for greater  convenience in obtaining their medicine and a need for greater access to lab tested  products. 

As a result, with California’s population of 38 million people, there is only one  cannabis sales venue per 29,000 residents. In comparison, when you add up all  alcohol license types and number of venues and events there may be over 100,000  sites for obtaining alcohol, meaning one for every 380 residents. And that is not  counting the annual tourist influx, which is over two hundred million, many  coming to buy cannabis and its products. 

We are only asking for the end of tax based persecution and the reduction of  punitive regulation by the state, by the counties and by the cities to create a level  playing field for cannabis, on parity with the alcohol industry for the number retail  stores and other venues, especially consumption lounges.  

Gives us the same number Off-site and On-site venues for cannabis, reduce and  simplify the regulations, eliminate the cultivation tax and reduce the excise tax to  1% or 2% above the standard sales tax and the state will more than double its  current tax revenues from cannabis. This will simultaneously reduce the illicit  market, allowing millions of consumers more convenient access to tested products  for their necessary medicine and their source of inspiration. This will enable the  small scale craft cannabis producer to actually make a living.

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