pot storefront san diego union tribune

Cannabis, Urbanism and Storefront Ethics

Five decades and six months after the Summer of Love, the age of legalized cannabis has arrived in California. As of January 1, cities may officially permit the sale and commercial production of smokeable marijuana and other wacky products to consenting adults, not just those who have back pain or faint appetites. Once confined to crowds of peaceniks in Golden Gate Park, marijuana is finally free.


Within limits, of course. California’s marijuana regulations, as ordered by Proposition 64, which passed comfortably in 2016 after many prior defeats, defines minimum standards for locating cannabis-related facilities. It includes sensible restrictions, such as minimum distances to schools and types of signage allowed (neon green crosses, and punny names have become the signifiers of choice). The regulations also permit cities and counties to impose stricter regulations—or to ban commercial activities entirely. Jurisdictions must decide whether they want to satisfy their residents’ demands and reap tax sales tax revenue—or whether marijuana is too unseemly for their fair cities.


This discussion came up in a meeting of the land use committee of my local Neighborhood Council in West Los Angeles, on which I sit. One of my colleagues, clearly unnerved by the whole notion of legalized marijuana—and by the conflict between federal and state law—encouraged us to resist any form of commercial marijuana on “ethical” grounds.


I’m not about to predict Jeff Sessions’s inclinations on this matter. But let’s talk about “ethics.”


Let us not doubt that every decision concerning the built environment includes ethical components. Every publically useable or visible building, whether large or small, ugly or fair, imposes itself on other people. Every imposition is, by definition, an ethical choice. When, for instance, Apple’s Jonathan Ive saysWe didn’t make Apple Park for other people”referring to the company’s new intergalactic doughnut in Melo Park—he’s making an ethical statement, whether he likes (or knows) it or not. That’s because, of course, “other people” have to look at it, contend with traffic generated by it, etc.


In autocracies like Turkmenistan or the Apple Corp., ethical considerations—for better or worse—might not matter a whit. But in democracies, they matter quite a bit. And they naturally apply to storefronts that sell marijuana. My colleague was right to raise the issue.


I, personally, do not have an ethical problem with selling or using cannabis. If, though, we’re going to condemn one form of legal commerce on ethical grounds, we might as well take a look at all the others while we’re at it.


The neighborhood in question is not exactly Haight-Ashbury. It’s a predictable upscale collection of hair salons, restaurants, juice bars, and fitness studios. How many of my neighbors smoke a bowl after doing downward dogs is anyone’s guess.


If we care about ethics, though, a few of our existing, perfectly legal establishments may warrant scrutiny.


Starting with the obvious, what about the bars, wine stores, and grocery stores? The antisocial effects of alcohol are exhaustively documented. For every stoner who has stubbed his toe while high, someone has lost a life to drunk driving.  


What about the dry cleaners, de-soiling $100 business shirts and $2000 evening gowns with chemicals that would peel your skin off if given half a chance?


What about vacant lots, growing uglier by the day, imposing ugliness on passers-by and denying would-be residents the chance to live there?


What about the chain restaurants, clogging arteries and paying scarcely minimum wage in the expectation that diners will show their largesse?


What about the hair salons, where the cost of a blow-dry could feed a homeless person for a week?


What about the homeless themselves, camping on our sidewalks rather than being housed with dignity?


What about the former redlining, blockbusting, HOA covenants, and discriminatory lending practices whose echoes still resound in neighborhoods rich and poor?


What about the gas stations, dispensing a product that has swallowed more money, instigated more wars, supported more dictators, and blackened more lungs than probably any other in human history?


What, indeed, about the “ethics” of rolling a joint, baking a brownie, or selling them under a green cross?


We need not condemn every land use decision humanity has ever made. We have arrived at this point largely through convention, inertia, rational analysis, and good faith. In some cases, have inherited, and perpetuated, landscapes created by coercion and acculturation that took place before any of us were born and, in many cases, before our cities were ever built. We need not have ethical crises with every step we take or every mile we drive. And yet, we should not apply asymmetrical standards just because something is new. The appeal of “grandfathering” depends entirely on who your grandfather is.


Surely it’s reasonable not to want our children to be tempted by cannabinoid fantasies. But do we want them buying gasoline? Do we want them spending all of their allowance on hair care? Do we want them to shrug as they pass the destitute veteran on the sidewalk? Do we really want them to grow up in neighborhoods scarcely less segregated then those in which we grew up and which instilled our values in us?


These questions do not yield easy answers, whether you’re discussing them stone-cold sober at a community meeting or drawing deep thoughts out of a tight, fat, and—finally—legal joint.


Featured image via the San Diego Union-Tribune. This essay was simultaneously published with the California Planning & Development Report.  


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