Bay Area seniors want a Pot shop
“My wife and I get high on the weekends,” Mike Kuller tells me, with a frankness that might surprise you given the fact that he’s a 76-year-old retired pharmacist.
The herbal drug helps the couple deal with the aches and pains of getting old, he says, but their local government has put a big hurdle in between them and legal weed: There’s no legal pot shop in town.
Kuller lives in Walnut Creek, an East Bay city of about 70,000 people at the base of Mount Diablo. More specifically, he lives in the sprawling senior-living community known as Rossmoor — and he’s noticed an increasing number of his neighbors are also enjoying the benefits of using cannabis.
Because Walnut Creek is one of the hundreds of California cities that outright ban legal weed storefronts, the only way residents at Rossmoor can get weed is by using an online ordering service, or driving miles away to a different city.
That’s made residents at this community among the most vocal supporters for bringing legal weed storefronts to Walnut Creek. It may sound surprising — grandparents and older folks aren’t usually associated with getting high on weed — but people over the age of 65 are now the fastest growing group of cannabis users in America.
“I think a lot of seniors are aware of the benefits,” Kuller says, while sitting outside of a community clubhouse at Rossmoor. “The problem for them is access, particularly here in Rossmoor where you have 10,000 seniors, and if they’re not web savvy they can’t find [cannabis] online.”
Janet Seldon, 70, another resident of Rossmoor and advocate for older adults using cannabis, says she could handle an online ordering system. But she still chooses to travel all the way to San Francisco to buy cannabis from a store she trusts.
“I am computer savvy, but I don’t like ordering off a menu. It’s hard to read all of the details and know if [the order] went through,” Seldon says. “There’s such a need to address seniors in a different way, and it’s a lot easier to do it in person.”
California’s ‘fatal flaw’ in legal pot
Walnut Creek’s ban on storefront pot shops comes as the entire state struggles to open enough legal weed stores to supply California’s legal cannabis market. More than 60% of California’s municipalities still ban the sale of legal weed, which is fueling the state’s booming market for illegal pot, according to the Department of Cannabis Control. The lack of legal stores has become so dire that the state recently announced it would pay local governments up to $300,000 for every retail cannabis permit they issue.
California state law gives local governments control over how and whether legal weed is regulated within their municipalities, giving small town politicians the final say on nearly every aspect of legal weed. The cannabis industry has called this local control a “fatal flaw” in California’s legal weed system.
Politicians in Walnut Creek have slowly inched their way toward legalizing pot stores in the years since voters legalized adult-use cannabis at the state level in 2016. The city allowed medical-only delivery in 2018 and then in 2022 gave the greenlight to both adult-use and medical delivery within city limits.
But the slow progress and lack of retail options have a growing group of residents saying the local government is acting against the town’s own wishes: More than 60% of Walnut Creek residents voted to legalize weed in California in 2016, and 60% said the city shouldn’t ban stores in a 2017 survey, according to the East Bay Times.
The closest the Walnut Creek City Council has come to even discussing allowing storefront pot shops was in April of last year, when Councilmember Kevin Wilk said that the council needed to have a discussion about retail pot stores. The council voted to bring the idea up for a discussion by the second quarter of 2023, but that deadline has since passed without the council debating the issue.
Cindy Silva, a councilmember who currently serves as mayor, declined to tell SFGATE whether she supports legalizing pot shops. She did say that legal cannabis retail is not a priority for her town’s residents or their government.
“It hasn’t risen to the top as an economic priority for Walnut Creek,” Silva said. “It was not going to be a big [economic] driver for us. And that’s why we’re not focused on it.”
Older adults want a pot shop
Renee Lee, a resident of Rossmoor who organizes a local medical marijuana club with hundreds of members, said she turned to cannabis after a brain surgery in 2004 left her with debilitating pain.
“I was on about 13 different meds and five more for the side effects of all those meds. I wasn’t well. I wasn’t sleeping, I wasn’t eating and I was getting worse,” Lee said.
Lee said she found almost immediate relief when she started using cannabis, which she now calls a “miracle cure.” That inspired her to share information with other older people about how cannabis can help them in a variety of ways. She frequently shares products with her neighbors at Rossmoor, showing them how to use cannabis tinctures, vaporizers, edibles and even smoke herbal cannabis.
Lee said the biggest risk she sees with seniors is consuming too large of a dose of cannabis and then having a panic attack. One study published this year found that emergency room visits for people over 65 using cannabis increased more than 1,800% in California between 2005 and 2019. Lee said the majority of the people she knows who have gone to the ER after taking cannabis could have avoided their visit if they had been able to visit a local store and receive guidance about how much cannabis to consume.
“When you have a place you can go and talk to someone and you have that rapport, you can go back and say this [product] isn’t working or this product is working,” Lee said. “A dispensary would be fantastic there, our residents would love it.”
Lee said the city’s blockade over pot shops is particularly ironic given the city allows alcohol sales, a drug linked to 140,000 deaths a year in the United States.
“They’re handing out liquor licenses like candy but dragging their feet on cannabis,” Lee said. “They’re just afraid and uneducated.”
‘They’re seeing it backwards’
At least some politicians support bringing retail pot stores to Walnut Creek. Melissa Ward, the chair of the Walnut Creek Planning Commission, said that the board has already recommended that the city allow storefront cannabis. She said in an email to SFGATE that a local pot shop “could provide a good source of new tax revenue” for the city.
“I think we have evidence that Walnut Creek residents would welcome and support a storefront cannabis store in the downtown area and I think that modern cannabis retail stores could fit in with the shopping and entertainment environment we have created in Walnut Creek,” Ward wrote.
When asked about the planning commission’s recommendation, Silva, the mayor, said the group doesn’t “have any facts to support their point of view” and reiterated that a cannabis store would not provide an economic benefit to the city. Neither politician provided specific data for their claims.
Kuller said that ultimately, opponents of pot shops are only making cannabis consumption unsafe in the area by fueling the illegal cannabis market and making it difficult for seniors to get good information.
“I think people who are anti-dispensary are really not seeing the big picture,” Kuller said. “They’re seeing it backwards.”