As California’s cities scrambled to open cannabis dispensaries and other operations after marijuana became legalized, one Marin ex-hippie enclave still bans pot businesses — Sausalito.

Now Measure K is on the ballot for the Nov. 8 election and residents will be able to weigh in on lifting the ban and allowing exactly one canna-biz to open in the coastal town.

Now the city’s voters must choose between keeping the ban on cannabis businesses or essentially giving the green light to one large business, Otter Brands LLC, which is the only one known so far to meet very specific requirements set out in the initiative filed to make the November ballot.

The initiative was penned by principals from Otter Brands, which hopes to set up shop. Written into the measure is a provision that only businesses that sought city approval prior to April 2021 could be considered for a storefront dispensary, like Otter, leading opponents to cry foul and use words like “monopoly.”

However, a city staff report from September 2020 lists three other companies besides Otter that had approached the city: Element 7, Fume and Sparc.

A caveat in Measure K states that at least one operator of the dispensary must live in Sausalito, as does the sponsor of the initiative and co-partner in Otter Brands, Karen Cleary. It also states that the dispensary owners must have experience running a business in town, as third Otter partner Chris Monroe does as owner of CrossFit Sausalito.

Element 7 is based in Monterey County, Fume has ties to Napa and Lake counties, and Sparc is located in San Francisco and Sonoma counties.

‘Dithering’ on dispensaries

Otter set up a website to make their case. If chosen as the sole cannabis storefront business, they promise to contribute “significantly” to schools, parks and nonprofits, to not make parking and traffic worse, to create a high-end retail store and provide products for local customers so that they don’t have to travel elsewhere.

They also say they will donate free medical cannabis to indigent and elderly customers. They will ensure that anyone under 21 will not gain entry and they plan to set up the dispensary 1,000 feet from any schools.

Conor Johnston, one of the drafters of the initiative and a partner at Otter Brands and former chief of staff to then-San Francisco Supervisor London Breed, notes that Marin County voted overwhelmingly to legalize pot in 2016.

Yet after six years, Sausalito still does not have a single store. In fact, the entire county only has one medical cannabis dispensary, several delivery companies and zero retail outlets.

A page on the Otter Brands LLC website makes the case for support of Measure K and why the Sausalito would benefit from the presence of the company’s planned cannabis shop. (Image via otterbrands.com)

Johnston said that the Sausalito City Council has “dithered” for years about allowing a dispensary in town.

A staff report provided to the City Council in November 2020 outlines the years-long grapple with legal cannabis in Sausalito spanning back to 2017. In 2020, the council asked for a working group to explore the idea of store-front retail cannabis. Councilmember Joe Burns said at the time that allowing a retail space for cannabis was a “no brainer.”

“I would suggest that we direct staff to actually come back with an ordinance allowing a storefront and get on with this,” he said at a Sept. 8, 2020, meeting.

For Johnston, the slow gears of city government were not an approach that was working for the city of Sausalito.

“They commissioned a working group that wrote a report then refused to even hear the report,” he said in an email.

Johnston and his partners decided to collect signatures, write up an initiative, and take the ballot route to get a dispensary in Sausalito.

Then there are the “No on K” people. They too have a website, where they say Otter strips “local control from Sausalito residents,” evades “regulation and oversight by elected officials,” and grants power solely to Otter.

‘Lies and scare tactics’

Opponents of Measure K say they want to see cannabis businesses in Sausalito but they want to see it go through the City Council, not a ballot measure written by the company that wants to open up there.

Johnston disagrees that the No on K people are pro-cannabis and calls them “prohibitionists.” No one from the No on K campaign responded to a request for comment.

Johnston sees his goal of opening a dispensary in Sausalito as a positive move that will quell the illegal market, which has had a big impact on dispensary sales everywhere.

“A lot of voters are unfamiliar with all this,” he said in an email. “They’re hearing lies and scare tactics from people who just hate cannabis.”

“Why don’t you ask the ‘no’ side if they think it’s ok to have dealers selling to kids?” he added.

A frame grab of the No to K website homepage encourages voters to donate to the campaign and learn more about the measure. (Image via votenotok.org)

Opponents are calling Otter Brands “Big Cannabis” because of Johnston’s San Francisco store “Berner’s on Haight,” which is associated with cannabis mogul Gilbert Anthony Milam Jr., also known as the rapper Berner. Milam is the CEO of Cookies, a giant in the cannabis industry. He and his business have been featured in Forbes and Ad Age.

But Johnston says that Milam and Cookies will have nothing to do with the Sausalito store.

“Cookies is so irrelevant to this,” he said in an email, calling it a “prohibitionists’ red herring.” “No, Cookies doesn’t own any of our store. It’s a branding partnership that has nothing to do with Sausalito whatsoever,” he said.

“While Otter Brands claims to be a friend of the City, they have shown that they will muscle their way to get what they want regardless of the cost to the city or residents,” says the No on K website.

Sausalito Mayor Janelle Kellman also opposes Measure K.

“Measure K is not how Sausalito does business,” she said in a statement. “We don’t cut corners and push efforts that try to avoid meaningful public input. This initiative is bankrolled by a large cannabis corporation and it deserves a lot more public engagement.”