Hundreds of Californians stake future on legal dagga market

There is no guarantee that California will vote to legalise recreational dagga in November, but political operative and father of four Daniel Conway has already staked his future on it.

Conway left his job as chief of staff to Sacramento’s celebrity mayor, former Phoenix Suns NBA basketball star Kevin Johnson, to help start the dagga investment company Truth Enterprises.

He is one of hundreds in the most populous US state already pushing ahead with plans to enter a market experts say will be worth $4-billion (R60-million) by 2020.

“I’m someone of an age and demographic that sees the legalisation of marijuana as inevitable,” Conway, 35, said.

“This is a chance not just to build companies but to build an industry.”

With a population of nearly 40 million people, and a thriving medical dagga trade legalised 20 years ago, California already has the United States’s largest legal dagga market.

Legalisation of recreational pot would generate an estimated $1-billion (R15-billion) in additional taxes a year.

If voters in November approve a measure to legalise and tax dagga that qualified last Tuesday for the ballot, California would be the fifth US state – and by far the largest – to allow dagga for recreational use, joining Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Alaska, as well as the District of Columbia.

A similar ballot initiative failed in California in 2010, but recent polls show strong support for legalisation.

The latest effort is backed by mainstream leaders including Lieutenant-Governor Gavin Newsom, who helped negotiate the regulations and taxes it would impose.

Eight other states, including Nevada and Maine, also have recreational or medical dagga proposals headed for ballots.

California’s sheer size as the world’s sixth-largest economy means a decision by its voters to legalise dagga could accelerate the trend elsewhere.

Leslie Bocskor, whose Nevada private equity firm, Electrum Partners, advises and invests in dagga-related businesses, said: “I don’t believe there will be any precedent in the United States that can compare with it, except maybe for the Gold Rush.”

The lure of wealth in an uncharted industry is so great that thousands of people are jostling for position, Bocskor said.

Since January, 115 new California companies have joined the National Cannabis Industry Association, bringing total membership in the state to 330, deputy director Taylor West said.

New companies include cultivators, dispensaries, laboratories, law partnerships, accountants, software developers, insurers and more, she said.

Their challenge is to set up an infrastructure for a business that is not yet legal.

Conway and his business partner, General Hydroponics chief executive Ross Haley, for example, recently purchased farmland in northern California that they hope to use to grow dagga but would not say where before the measure is passed.

Newport Beach-based Terra Tech is trying to prepare for recreational sales while building a legal business within the state’s medical dagga marketplace, which has annual sales of $2.7-billion (R40-billion).

The company spent more than $800 000 (R12-million) designing and remodelling its Oakland dispensary to look more like a highend lounge than a drab medical clinic, chief executive Derek Peterson said.

It also developed colourful packaging for its dagga instead of dispensing it in prescription bottles.

But, despite such optimism, the passage of the California measure is not certain.

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