Blessed are the geeks
The San Francisco Bay Area is short on solutions to old problems
“No, you’ll have to enter the middle number, it’s a British Passport. In Britain, we put the day first.” Truth be told, I was feeling at my most English. Here I am, standing in front of a cannabis retailer, attempting to explain calendrical mysteries across the pond to a red-shirted and nattily turned-out employee who looks approximately old enough to shave and — odd for one so young — is struggling with a fancy bit of electronics.
It not only feels furtive, it is furtive. I haven’t been “carded” for many a long year and I keep looking for inspiration in my handbag. Well, that’s me done for leadership of the Tory Party. I’d have to tell some future Andrew Neil about my adventures buying legal weed in Los Angeles.
“We don’t keep anyone’s data; it’s purely to comply with Californian law.” As with alcohol, one has to be 21 even to enter the premises. And they mean it.
MedMen, the shop is called. The size of your local Wilko’s, but glass-fronted and shiny like an Apple Store. Long wooden tables festooned with iPads and neatly packaged pots of pot are surrounded by displays of e-cigarettes, sweets (often called “gummies”), oils, and paraphernalia hanging from the walls. At the back there’s a Genius Bar. Well, something that looks like one. The employees there are more expert, and known as “budtenders” — a bit like a sommelier.
To observe the rigidly-enforced age rules beside the product being sold is to be reminded of one of the Golden State’s great internal contradictions. Yes everything is legal and everything is for sale. But there are rules, so many rules. And then there are taxes. Abbot Kinney MedMen is doing a roaring trade, but it would want to be. Apart from a shopfit that must have cost a bloody fortune, it’s also subsidising the Californian state government, and that sucker is two trillion bucks in the hole. One of the budtenders tells me cannabis from legal outlets is routinely twice the “street” price.
“The problem is the taxes,” he adds. “They’re losing cigarette revenue, so they’re trying to make up for it with weed. If they’re not careful, they’ll kill the industry.”
Although not alone in doing so, California has fed its debt addiction with tobacco bonds issued on the back of the 1998 Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement. The TMSA was meant to force Big Tobacco to provide compensation for the healthcare costs smoking imposes across populations, but because smokers actually cost Medicaid less than healthy people (mainly because they don’t live as long), the temptation to use the revenue as a basis for securitisation proved too much. This depends on smoking rates remaining fairly constant, but thanks to electronic cigarettes — both of the nicotine and (now legal) cannabis sort — that income stream is drying up. Vaping, of course, is one of the most effective ways to quit smoking.
In many US states, tobacco bonds permit governments to transfer the risk of declines in future Master Settlement Agreement payments to bondholders. In California, however, the bonds are backed by what’s known as an “appropriation pledge” from state and local revenues if the state doesn’t sell enough smokes. This creates a perverse incentive to support the tobacco industry — or at least to hunt aggressively for new sources of income.
“Some of those bonds,” the budtender observes drily, “they ain’t far off junk.”
I saw so many different things banned in various parts of California — but especially in San Francisco and Los Angeles — I lost track of what was still legal. My difficulties arose not only from the sheer number of bans, but spotty enforcement. “Ban Francisco”, as locals call it, is king of the (unenforced) ban. Electric scooters. Company cafeterias. Cashless stores. Plastic straws. Fur coats. Facial recognition technology. Nicotine (but not cannabis) electronic cigarettes. Giving away toys with fast-food meals (locals call this “the Happy Meal Ban”).
Given I never go to McDonald’s I can’t confirm or deny implementation of the Happy Meal ban, but I’m here to tell you I saw people zipping along footpaths and zooming in front of trolley-cars and trams on electric scooters while vaping (lord knows what; maybe they were vaping legal cannabis and not illegal nicotine). I went into Barbary Coast, a San Francisco cannabis retailer, to encounter a bustling café full of people puffing away as though they were reprising Audrey Hepburn’s role in Breakfast at Tiffany’s while watching NFL games on various big screens. It was like British pubs before the smoking ban. In Los Angeles, I saw a woman light up an almighty spliff on the beach in Marina del Rey while walking one of those teeny-tiny fluffy-eared doglets. Both dogs and spliffs are banned on the beach at Marina del Rey. Says so right there on the sign. A member of one of the city’s proliferating police forces stood idly by, watching.
The extent to which California reminded me of southern Italy was something I did not expect. It has the same overlapping, contradictory, and even chaotic bureaucracies; multiple police authorities (less well dressed than the Italians, though; at one point I saw two LAPD officers cordoning off a crime scene in Venice while dressed in cargo shorts), piles of uncollected rubbish, plus an abundance of pettifogging laws widely ignored by the population.
Nowhere is this contradiction more apparent than in the treatment of cannabis. While fully legalised in 11 US states, it’s still illegal at the federal level. This doesn’t stop California doing its recreational business, but it does mean retailers are often cash only — banking and finance are regulated federally, and providing credit card facilities for something illegal is not quite the done thing. Downtown Los Angeles has thus reverted to something not seen since the 80s: armoured vans stuffed with cash caroming around all those six-lane highways.
My time in California overlapped with a tour by British musician Zuby, and he noticed the same insouciant attitude to enforcement, but of a more serious sort than merely turning a blind eye to mindless nanny-statism. At night, he saw San Francisco police ignore public heroin injection, people smoking crack, and an individual defecating in the street.
“It was like Mad Max in Tenderloin,” he told me. “I’m not cut out for this.”
Zuby is a rapper who grew up in Nigeria and Saudi Arabia.
Because I drove rather than flew and took a long detour inland to Yosemite (its giant Sequoias have been on my bucket list for as long as I can remember), I travelled through hundreds of miles of extraordinarily productive and what my mother always called “clean” agricultural land (meaning beautifully tended and weed-free; no, not that sort of weed). There were vines laden with late summer fruit; cannabis and flowers in poly-tunnels; almonds and olives in alternate rows; apples, apricots, and citrus. Some farmers had diversified; Zinfandel in one field, cannabis in another, olives in another again. The pleasures of the senses were writ so large it was as though some pagan Roman deity had come up from the earth and swept aside America’s tendency to tell people how to live and what to put in their mouths with a wave of his hand and instructed California’s farmers accordingly. Set alongside ridiculous bans in the cities, I sensed the extent to which Puritan Prohibition on the modern woke left is as much at war with human nature and Californian agriculture as the historical sort.
“During Prohibition,” a Sonoma County vintner told me, “a lot of wineries ripped out their vines, but they still made money.” Where Semillon and Zinfandel and other respectable varietals had once reigned, the new king was a ragamuffin called “Alicante Bouschet”. From Sonoma to Fresno, established vineyards grafted their Cabernets and Rieslings onto this unappealing subspecies: “a grape so deplorable,” wrote the Epicurean novelist Idwal Jones, “it ranks somewhat below the gooseberry”.
Alicante made truly dreadful wine, but the alchemy of Prohibition turned its deficiencies into money. It produced a bountiful crop: “high yield, low quality” in the language of oenology. During Prohibition, people wanted to get drunk, fast. Standards were irrelevant, because if Prohibition’s enforcers got hold of your plonk, it would literally be spilled in the streets, especially in proudly dry Los Angeles. Despite considerable winemaking skills, the Italian-American owned vineyards of Sonoma and Napa only escaped a reputation for “cheap and cheerful” in 1976, at the so-called “Judgement of Paris”. French judges carried out two blind tasting comparisons — one of top-quality Chardonnays and another of Bordeaux reds against Napa and Sonoma Cabernet Sauvignon. A Californian wine won in each category.
Californians are as good at cannabis as they are at wine, and the integration between retailers and farmers is notable. Already they’ve developed “varietals” that do different things, from the traditional relaxation and predilection for Doritos to pain relief to keeping students alert and focused. I purchased a pile of notionally illegal products (mixtures of electronic cigarettes and gummies) and brought them to the UK in my carry-on luggage. Neither the TSA at the US end nor Border Force at Heathrow batted an eye. It’s difficult, once legal markets have done their work — producing packaging, R&D, and uniform quality — to point the finger and shout, “but that’s against the law!”
President Trump and the City of San Francisco agree on few things, but banning nicotine electronic cigarettes (Americans call them “vape pens” or “cartridges”) is one. In parallel with a growing national scandal as people sickened and died after using them, the Politician’s Syllogism emerged on both sides of the aisle: we must do something; here is something; let’s do that thing!
Unfortunately, it took until the end of September for US Centres for Disease Control to admit the current spate of mysterious, vaping-related lung illnesses are linked to black-market cannabis products — not nicotine, and not cannabis products from legal pot shops. Which is why banning flavoured nicotine e-liquids or electronic cigarettes is a classic case of leaping to conclusions, missing, and breaking one’s neck. Unsurprisingly, America’s singularly hasty President has tagged along, signing an Executive Order banning some — but not all — of the fruitier nicotine flavours. No, I am not making this up.
“This confusion is leading to bad public policy,” argued Dr Michael Siegel, Professor of Community Health Services at Boston University, when the CDC finally admitted its error. “Instead of intervening to try to stem the distribution of illegal, black-market THC vape cartridges . . . policy makers are banning flavoured e-cigarettes, which so far as we know, are not clearly associated with the outbreak. Banning these products is going to cause many ex-smokers to return to smoking and is also going to create a new black market for flavoured e-liquids.”
Cannabis electronic cigarettes and e-liquids — far more so than nicotine — are expensive thanks to high taxes, which is why even in states where cannabis is fully legalised there’s still a black market. Trade magazine Leafly estimates that America’s legal, regulated cannabis industry accounts for only 22 per cent of the nation’s $52 billion in cannabis purchases. The other 78 per cent remains untested and out of control.
“Geeks ruin everything, because they can afford anything,” Los Angeles writer and comedienne Bridget Phetasy told me candidly. “They can solve technical problems but not all problems are technical. So we finish up completely incapable of addressing, say, homelessness.” The homelessness is staggering; I have never seen so many homeless people in a developed country. In the mornings, they line up to use the beach showers in Marina del Ray, shopping trolleys loaded with their worldly goods off to one side as dog-walkers and scooter-users go past.
All over the world, successful metropolitan areas are experiencing an acute shortage of access to housing for those on average to low incomes. This is thanks to a perfect storm of low interest rates, local zoning and building regulations, and the purchase of real estate in stable political jurisdictions as a hedge by wealthy people in places that don’t have the rule of law. It’s producing tremendous political pressure, but in California, the geeks have inherited the Bay Area, and they ain’t sharing.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try three issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £5Subscribe