Reporting from Oakland — Oakland's City Council approved an ordinance late Tuesday night that could make it the first city in the state to permit industrial marijuana production, a groundbreaking decision that is likely to spur the increased commercialization of a crop now largely grown in hidden gardens.
"This is a monumental step forward," said Dale Gieringer, an Oakland resident and the longtime head of California NORML, which backs the legalization of marijuana. "It really means moving into the era of industrial-scale operations, and Oakland means to do it big."
Oakland will award permits to allow four potentially enormous pot factories, which will operate under close city supervision. The plan puts Oakland at the forefront of California cities and counties that are weighing how to control marijuana cultivation. Berkeley, Oakland's neighbor, is the only other California city to take a similar step, asking voters in November to approve six industrial operations.
Oakland has long taken a cutting-edge approach to marijuana, but this ordinance is a leap into the unknown. The city's own attorney advised in a confidential memo that it was not legal under state law, and federal drug agents continue to bust growers despite the Obama administration's hands-off policy on medical marijuana.
The 5-2 vote came after two hours of testy debate between pot growers who argued that the proposal could destroy their livelihoods and would-be marijuana businessmen who said it could turn Oakland into the Silicon Valley of weed by creating a fertile environment for entrepreneurs.
The council decided to accommodate these growers, who supply some of the $28 million in marijuana sold in the city's four dispensaries, promising to develop a plan to include them before permits are awarded next year for the four large-scale operations.
Hundreds of applicants, from veteran growers to well-funded entrepreneurs with no previous interest in marijuana, are expected to compete for the four slots.
Jesse Lyons said he and some other medium-size growers are talking about banding together to apply for one of the permits. "We want to be as above-board as possible," he said.