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Supervisor Sheila Kuehl says LA County should think about pot like it does alcohol




L.A. County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl stands in her home office, where she hangs family photographs and TV Guide covers from her acting career.
L.A. County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl stands in her home office, where she hangs family photographs and TV Guide covers from her acting career.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC

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Los Angeles County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl thinks that marijuana should be treated like alcohol. That's an important thing to know, because she's the one leading the charge on how L.A. County is going to regulate cannabis.

Even though pot's legal in California, the state, cities and counties are still deciding how they should treat the drug. L.A. County is in a unique position, given that it's the most populous county in the United States. That makes it the largest county with legal weed.

Just last week, Kuehl kicked off the county's move towards regulating cannabis in the unincorporated areas — a broad swath of land that stretches from Altadena to Ladera Heights, East L.A. to Topanga Canyon.

When you've got that large of an area to cover and that many different communities to consider, how do you decide which rules are right for a previously unregulated industry?

Below is a conversation that I had with Kuehl about how her own substance abuse issues inform her view of the drug, as well as what she hopes the Board of Supervisors will be able to do for people living here.

Have you smoked marijuana before?

Oh, I think I did in my twenties. You know, that's 50 years ago now, so it's hard to remember whether I think I did or I [actually] did. But I don't want to deny it. I'm sure a lot of people did it and I probably did too.

When it comes to creating regulations that work for L.A. County, how do your past experiences with the drug and being around people using the drug, medically and recreationally, inform your decisions?

It has a very big influence on me, but so does my youthful drinking and being in recovery. I mean, not a big fan of alcohol either, I have to say. And I don’t drink, and don’t do any of these drugs. Those are my choices, because I came to understand the impact on me, and millions of other people have as well. 

I think the biggest question for governments now is how to shift from kind of an underground illegal economy, which is thriving, to fulfill what the people have in mind by voting for legalization, which is to treat this more like alcohol was treated after the 21st Amendment, when Prohibition was repealed.

So, it shifts from 'this is an illegal drug' to 'this is a kind of substance that affects your vision and your judgement while you're under the influence and needs to be regulated.'

Making sure that when we do regulations, we worry about strength and potency, the way we do with alcohol.

I think that’s an important role of government, not to over-terrorize people, but to say, 'look, you need to understand.' And we’re going to regulate strength, we’re going to regulate distribution, we’re going to try to make sure all of these businesses are licensed, so at least there’s some quality control. And that’s a big lift for the county, because we have to create a whole new process for this, and that’s what I hope to do.

When you're creating regulations for L.A. County, how do you make sure that you accomodate all of the different areas and people living here? You're looking at nearly 10.5 million possible different opinions on the topic.

Well you have to have a reasonable basis, the way you do for any law. The motion that I brought, which passed unanimously for L.A. County, really is about the unincorporated areas only, where we act as though we're a city. But that's about 10 percent of the county, so it certainly impacts a lot of people.

So, we asked the CEO to convene a working group and it's ... already meeting. This makes it official. 

You know, we're not collecting any taxes, but we're already spending. It'll be up to millions of dollars by the time we regulate, because we have to look at package safety, testing, labeling, consumer protection, education and prevention campaigns, like we do with alcohol. I mean really, it's so much more like that, or overusing prescription drugs.

We have to really warn people: look, stuff can happen to you.

We need to do business licensing. Who's going to be able to sell it, what are the limits on them, what's the labeling and packaging got to look like.

I don't want any gummy bear marijuana in the children's section.

And there's a lot of enforcement stuff. Working with the sheriff for instance. Let's say you see someone driving erratically. You've got some measurement when you measure blood alcohol, but with cannabis, we don't. So, we want them to develop fair tests as well.

We're really in uncharted territory.

One potential positive here is the economic activity. It's something that's been talked about for years now, but there's a problem — it's an all cash business, and with all cash businesses comes a higher risk of crime. How is the county going to protect against that?

I think we have to do what we can to make it a non-cash business.

How do you do that if the federal government isn't interested in changing regulations?

Well, you can use a state bank. You could form a county bank ... You know, we have banks that are licensed by the state, not necessarily FDIC. So, I think there are ways to do it, and there's a lot of attention being paid to this.

[There's] no reason this has to be a cash business, 'cause it's not illegal anymore.

Cannabis was always sort of punished as the bad drug, when in my opinion it was no worse than alcohol. You would see many of the same kind of circumstances where families would break up, people would lose their jobs. It's very similar.

And I think there's always a danger of addiction ... [but] it doesn't mean that we want to criminalize the person who drinks a glass of wine. 

It's clear that not all of the supervisors are on the same page. For instance, some consider marijuana a gateway drug. Even though it's legal, it carries a negative stigma. How much does that stigma impact your decisions?

Well, we've done our best to collaborate with public health and with sheriffs who have the most at stake and [are] really sort of sounding the alarm in the worst possible way. Some refer to it as a gateway drug.

My generation was, frankly, we were drunks in college. We didn’t smoke. I was in college in the '50s and alcohol was, it wasn’t a gateway drug, it was just a gateway to addiction for some people.

So I think that this sort of reefer madness approach that we’ve had about marijuana is not going to help us in regulation — but we don’t want to underregulate either. People need to know exactly what they’re getting.

I think we have to really regulate this, 'cause there are potential public health dangers, and people need to understand. You know, we tell pregnant women 'don’t drink.'

This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.