Keeping the Public in Public Policy Making

Wednesday, September 13, 2017 - 20:15

Saturday morning, and the public library conference room thrums with the growing rumble of gathering voices as the meeting time approaches. One young woman clutches several pages of handwritten notes. She shuffles them, visibly nervous, perhaps dreading the moment someone might call on her to speak in front of others. Another attendee whispers softly in Spanish to a translator, the two of them acquainting themselves with the meeting’s background materials and guidelines. A few people who seem to be old acquaintances cluster in animated conversation just inside the room’s entrance.

Scenes like this were repeated evenings and Saturdays this summer in public meeting spaces across Los Angeles County. Newly legalized cannabis was the topic at hand, and these diverse groups of concerned citizens, business owners and industry types rallied themselves from among the one million residents of the County’s unincorporated areas to have a say in shaping policy for its cultivation, distribution, sales and use. Voters across California last fall approved ballot Proposition 64, otherwise known as the Adult Use of Marijuana Act, legalizing recreational and medicinal use of cannabis by adults aged 21 and older.

The new law allows every county and municipality in the state to shape their own regulations governing its implementation. This thrusts government and elected officials into the complex task of writing rules that thread the needle through a complex landscape of public and private interests. Growers and sellers of cannabis products, now freed (with the notable exception of federal laws) from decades of legal ambiguities that kept them stigmatized and in the shadows, have one set of concerns -- including making sure the regulatory playing field is such that smaller, local businesses don’t get edged out by large corporations. Parents and community members have expressed their own worries about cannabis access by underage youth, proximity of sales outlets to schools and parks, and spillover from communities electing to restrict sales adjacent to less restrictive jurisdictions. And that’s just for starters. In some communities, particularly where illegal dispensaries have run amok in recent years, feelings ran high. Clearly, tuning in to the range and diversity of these voices and interests seemed prudent.

Wisely exercising an abundance of care given the controversial history of what happens when cannabis meets community interests, the recently created Los Angeles County Office of Cannabis Management (OCM), under the auspices of the County CEO and leadership of Countywide Coordinator Joe Nicchitta chose a path somewhat atypical in many policy-setting processes: it engaged the public and key stakeholders at an earlier phase, before any local policies had been drafted. The process included attentive, facilitated listening sessions to gather thoughts and suggestions from a wide-range of stakeholders. OCM tapped Community Partners to organize the sessions and sensibly sum up the resulting participant input. Hence 20 welcoming, accessible scenes like the one described above where facilitators made sure everyone was heard at multiple topic tables and note takers captured their tone, thinking and concerns.

The river of views, ideas and concerns that resulted helped inform the deliberations of a diverse for the County Board of Supervisors. The depth of feeling expressed by those individuals, bonded over the course of eight sometimes difficult sessions where recommendations were decided by group consensus, was a testament to the value such a thoughtful, inclusive process can offer.

It has been an honor for us to help facilitate this “leading with listening” approach for the County. It exemplifies the very best of the democratic process, and we believe government regulations framed and formed in this way will always bring the most practical and people-focused results possible. OCM placed priority on engaging constituent voices and, in the process, emphasized the centrality of keeping the public in public policy.

 

A final report is forthcoming to OCM, and all recommendations made by the Advisory Working Group, will be available on the OCM website later this year.