The Controversy Behind Weedmaps

The headquarters of Weedmaps, the most influential company in California’s medical-marijuana industry, is hidden inside a gray, two-story office building at the intersection of Irvine Center Drive and Discovery in Irvine. Inside the green-accented lobby, the first hint that you’ve just entered a 420-friendly business is a faint trace of marijuana odor.

Within a year of Weedmap’s founding in 2008, the company’s website was already bringing in $300,000 per month in advertising revenue—from storefront dispensaries, delivery services and doctor referral providers. By 2013, Weedmaps was generating $1.5 million per month. In 2014, the most recent year for which the company’s financial data is available, Weedmaps was earning at least $30 million from listings.

The marijuana monolith is also a major player in California politics. Last year, Weedmaps provided $1 million to help fund a ballot measure to legalize the recreational use of marijuana statewide, the so-called Adult Use of Marijuana Act (AUMA), which is slated for the November ballot. The company paid a similar amount to fund a pro-legalization political-action committee.

Weedmaps is a central and, to some, highly controversial player in the AUMA initiative, which would create California’s first fully-regulated recreational-marijuana marketplace. According to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), the three basic elements in the elaborate, 62-page proposal are: allowing adults 21 years and older to possess up to 1 ounce of marijuana and cultivate up to six plants for personal use; regulating and taxing the production, manufacture and sale of marijuana for adult recreational use; and rewriting criminal penalties so as to reduce the most common marijuana felonies to misdemeanors and allow prior offenders to petition for reduced charges.

AUMA’s critics contend that, because the initiative would allow cities to ban recreational pot shops—a right that has already been upheld by the California Supreme Court as it applies to medical-marijuana collectives—the proposal won’t do anything to help low-income patients. “Because of the rolling dispensary bans caused by the [state Supreme Court] decision, accessing medical marijuana is impossible in more than 300 municipalities in California,” says Deborah Tharp, an activist with the California Cannabis Coalition. “There are thousands of people across the state who have to drive extremely long distances to get to the closest point of access, which is fine if you’re a recreational user; but if you need it for a medical condition, driving distances upward of 200 miles becomes extremely difficult.”

Furthermore, argues Tharp, the punishment for possession under AUMA doesn’t make sense. “The issue with this is that holding up to an ounce of marijuana is already decriminalized—you’ll get a $100 ticket. Drinking in public and speeding fines cost more than carrying an ounce of marijuana. So making the possession of an ounce punishable for up to six months in county [jail] is a regression. We’re literally going backward. . . . There are going to be so many consequences to this when the government tries to enforce the rules of AUMA. The whole thing is such a mess.”

Although Weedmaps has much to gain if AUMA becomes law, the company would likely remain relatively unaffected if the ballot initiative fails. According to Doug Francis, the company’s newly appointed CEO, if voters pass a rival initiative, the company would support it. “We are fluid at the end of the day,” he explains. “All initiatives move the industry forward, and that’s what we want. We will be there to help make it as digestible and consumable as possible. We are an agnostic platform, so I guess we’re lucky that we want everyone to do well—we will support anything that works. We just think AUMA has the best chance of getting through the onslaught of hurdles that is required in order to be qualified for a ballot initiative.”

But some medical-marijuana activists remain skeptical about Weedmaps and its involvement in AUMA. “About five years ago, [NORML] started working on getting something passed in Santa Ana through the council, and we weren’t successful,” recalls Kandice Hawes-Lopez, the founder and president of NORML’s Orange County chapter. “So we went out and talked to all the dispensaries and got a group together and approached Weedmaps and asked them if they wanted to be a part of our group. They told us no because they didn’t want to get political.”

That said, Weedmaps did allow OC NORML to hold its meetings at its office. Several months later, Hawes-Lopez discovered that Weedmaps had actually contributed cash to help gather support for a rival, city-supported initiative that eventually won at the polls. “Weedmaps paid $30,000 to the city’s campaign instead of ours, which was shocking because we thought they were supporting us the whole time when, in fact, they jumped ship and went behind our backs, on top of still letting us have meetings there,” she says. “We felt spied on.” That experience soured many medical-marijuana activists about Weedmaps, making them suspicious of the company’s motives for supporting AUMA, Hawes-Lopez explains. “I think that’s what first ignited the passion and distrust that revolves around Weedmaps and why groups of people in the medical-marijuana industry believe that it’s all some kind of conspiracy.”

Online medical-marijuana discussion boards are filled with passionate arguments about the merits of AUMA, with many activists arguing that recreational marijuana will destroy all the gains made over the years on behalf of patients’ rights. Given California’s chaotic history of medical-marijuana politics, it’s easy to see why some activists would be suspicious about any statewide proposal to regulate the industry. The state’s first legalization measure, the Compassionate Use Act of 1996, also known as Proposition 215, allowed for any Californian with a doctor’s note to grow and share medical marijuana with other individuals on a collective basis. Gradually, as capitalism inevitably took over, loose-knit collectives became storefront dispensaries, and now, some activists fear that AUMA will only further cement corporate control of the marijuana industry.

Beals acknowledges the suspicion about AUMA but says that most of it comes from lack of information. “When people get past the hyperbole of AUMA and sit down with someone who knows the ins and outs of it, a lot of people realize it’s not as bad as people think it is,” he says.

Indeed, despite her misgivings about Weedmaps, Hawes-Lopez admits it’d be nearly impossible for her to vote against the initiative. “At the end of the day, AUMA gives us legalization, which is what we’ve been working [toward] for so long. And although I have my differences with Weedmaps, I do appreciate what they’re doing.”