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Q&A: Nikesh Patel, SF’s top cannabis official, says city has work to do, urges patience with ‘young experiment’

Nikesh Patel, head of the SF Office of Cannabis, poses for a portrait in Potrero Flats on April 18, 2022. | Camille Cohen

Though he was raised in the Tenderloin—a stone’s throw from San Francisco’s decision-making nucleus—Nikesh Patel spent his youth thoroughly removed from the political machinations of city hall. It was precisely this disconnect that led him to throw himself into government service.

After earning a bachelor’s degree at Stanford University, a master’s at the University of Oxford and graduating from UC Berkeley’s School of Law, Patel began his career with the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office. From there, he moved on to serve under former San Francisco DA George Gascón, where he worked on criminal justice policy—including the effort to proactively expunge cannabis convictions under Prop. 64, the state ballot initiative that made recreational cannabis legal. 

Earlier this year, Patel was named as the new Director for the Office of Cannabis, a promotion from his role as the office’s associate director of oversight. He admits he never foresaw himself focusing on cannabis issues, but found himself drawn to the equity mission of the office and the passion of his colleagues. Case in point, a grant program operated by the office has distributed $5.5 million to date to operators that have been harmed by the War on Drugs.

This week, ahead of April 20—or 420, as it is known among cannabis enthusiasts—The Standard sat down with Patel to discuss the state of SF’s cannabis industry, security concerns of local dispensary operators, how Patel measures success in his role and what his own plans are for the high holiday.

How has the city’s relationship with the cannabis industry evolved over the years? 

Let’s start with Prop. 64 passing in 2016. A lot of cities and counties across the state said no, but San Francisco went the other direction and impaneled a task force to study the issue and make recommendations for how the code should be written. The program was designed with community input. While we have prioritized equity applicants—those individuals who were harmed by the War on Drugs—there were pathways for the members of the existing industry to join from across the supply chain. 

How will you grow equity licensing while protecting folks from predatory behavior? 

One of the best ways to push back against predatory practices is by educating and teaching people. Some operators will come to us with extreme levels of sophistication and they have the resources to be able to talk to their lawyers and put together a contract that protects their interests. That’s not everyone, and that’s not a lot of the people who we are trying to help. Every time an application is submitted, one of our permit analysts is assigned to that person. We also partnered with local law firms to provide technical assistance free of charge. 

I have to ask about the viral incident that was captured outside of Basa SF—where law enforcement essentially stood by and did nothing as the dispensary was ransacked. What was your reaction?

My reaction is the same reaction the leadership of the police department had when they conducted their review. That what happened is not behavior that’s reflective of the force more generally. Even before that incident occurred, the demonstrations during the summer after George Floyd’s murder spurred us to be proactive about building a relationship with the police department, getting operators to know their station captains, have law enforcement understand operators’ business structure and exchange accurate contact information. One of the initiatives we’re very excited about is creating a category for security consultancy services that we can fund through grant dollars so that operators can get help protecting their businesses. 

Still, there’s frustration from many operators who say that while they are going by the book, they feel law enforcement isn’t doing enough to help them protect their businesses or to crack down on the illicit market. How do you respond?

First and foremost, we applaud them and we thank them because the only way that the tide changes from the illicit to the regulated space is if people are willing to come forward and be the first. What history tells us is there are challenges along the way, but if they stay the course, there is a point where there’s a correction. The best way to undercut the illicit market is by creating the proper incentives for people to join the regulated space. These cannabis businesses that are coming off the ground are fixtures in their communities. They bring security, good neighborhood plans and engage with the people that live there. If they keep showing that this can work, we expect some of the macro forces on everything from oversupply to taxes to state regulations will also correct. But there needs to be time. It’s not a satisfying answer, but we’re still young in this experiment. 

How do you define and measure success in your new position?  

On a practical level, we want to continue to improve our permitting, not only in terms of the number of permits that are approved, but in terms of the time it takes to approve those permits.  Another part of this is how are we doing on the grant front? Are we getting dollars out? Are we doing it in a way that makes recipients happy and doesn’t complicate their lives? The last point is finding additional ways to bring people who are equity applicants into the cannabis industry because not everyone wants to own a cannabis business. For example, one piece of legislation that recently went into effect is creating a pathway for shared licensing. That means if you are someone who wants to manufacture a product but you do not want or have the resources to establish your own facility, you can partner with an existing manufacturer. In turn, they get priority in the permitting process. That reduces the overhead costs of opening a business and at the same time gives people an entry point outside of ownership.

The 420 celebration at Golden Gate Park has a city permit for temporary onsite cannabis sales. Are there efforts to expand these options for other events? 

How this event goes and how the Grasslands portion of Outside Lands went will set the tone for what the appetite is to renew or to extend the program into a more permanent fixture. What we’re really hoping to see with 420 at Hippie Hill is that people follow requirements to purchase products at the actual site because it’s regulated, it’s safe and it supports local cannabis businesses and incentivizes them to be there. We hope to create a clean environment for everyone. 

Speaking of, what are your plans for 420?
I will be at 420 at Hippie Hill for the entire day in a regulatory capacity. So a cheerleader for everyone who’s attending, while reminding them to pick up after themselves, buy from our approved vendors and be safe. Then in the evening, I’ll be wrapping up by day with a panel discussion at Manny’s.

Kevin Truong can be reached at