When word spread around the Capitol that freshly minted lobbyist Amy Jenkins signed on to represent the California Cannabis Industry Association, veteran lobbyists told her the move could ruin her political career.
“I was warned against it,” recalled Jenkins, who moved on as former Sen. Lou Correa’s chief of staff to Platinum Advisors in late 2014. “Now we’re seeing this complete shift in attitude where these very same people are coming to me and saying, ‘Hey, do you have a client you can throw my way or can you give me a referral so I can get into this industry?’ It’s fascinating what’s happened in a year’s time.”
Once taboo, marijuana is in the midst of a renaissance across the country. In Sacramento, cannabis now is a welcome topic in many legislative offices and given rise to a budding micro-economy: marijuana lobbying.
More than two dozen groups from the Recreational Boaters of California to the Wine Institute in San Francisco employed lobbyists to influence marijuana issues in the state last year, according to regulatory filings. As the public becomes more accepting of pot, the industry is drawing well-funded business interests that want a piece of California’s billion-dollar market.
The California Cannabis Industry Association paid Platinum, one of the top firms in the Capitol, $55,000 to lobby for medical marijuana legislation in 2015. The contract brought in more money than the firm’s accounts with some mainstream clients, such as Dish Network and Tesla Motors. Platinum got another $30,000 to lobby the Department of Food & Agriculture on medical marijuana and push other unrelated issues for Accela, a software company.
Last year the nonprofit advocacy group Drug Policy Action paid lobbyist Glenn Backes $4,500 a month to lobby for marijuana legislation.
Meanwhile, the firm Gonzalez, Quintana, Hunter & Cruz received $34,000 to lobby for the California Cannabis Operators League.
David Quintana, a partner and lobbyist with the firm, said a couple years ago he sought out lawmakers with “a little stoner” in their past; people who inhaled at some point in their life or might be more open-minded to his client’s position. In today’s political climate, he lobbies for pot the same way he lobbies any other issue.
“There are a lot of people with a vested interest that see California as the pot of gold,” Quintana said. “They see that pot of gold will be shaped by the Legislature. They all want a seat at that table. They don’t want to be the one left out.”
Lobbyists and interest groups point to several reasons for marijuana’s increasing influence in Sacramento. Many say cooperation between the cannabis industry and law enforcement in recent years has opened up doors to new opportunities.
The California Police Chiefs’ Association backed a measure to regulate the medical marijuana industry in 2014. SB 1262 was authored by former Sen. Lou Correa of Santa Ana and at one point co-authored by then-Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, two lawmakers on opposite sides of the Democratic scale. It was the first medical marijuana regulation bill sent to business committees in each house.
The bill died in an Assembly committee. But the negotiations marked a rare moment in marijuana politics with law enforcement and growers at the same table working on a deal, said Jenkins, who helped craft the bill for Correa at the time. Jenkins left the Capitol and took a job lobbying for Platinum after the session ended.
Nate Bradley, the head of the California Cannabis Industry Association, said the decision by a major firm like Platinum and Jenkins to work for his group was a “game-changer” for the industry. At the time, the lobbying community was still hesitant to represent marijuana interest groups.
“By the end of last year, every lobbyist and their mother is banging on our door trying to understand how to get a cannabis client,” Bradley said. “I had someone try to poach me from Amy in a bathroom at a restaurant.”
The industry and law enforcement came together on medical marijuana legislation again last year. Some say lawmakers were motivated to pass medical regulations, creating a legal precedent, before voters are expected to weigh in on recreational use in November.
More than a dozen measures to legalize the use of marijuana in California are in the works for the 2016 ballot. The leading initiative, the Adult Use of Marijuana Act sponsored by Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, has received $2.25 million in funding, all in the last two months. The group’s financial base is expected to reach as high as $20 million before the vote.
Lobbyists say lawmakers aren’t as open to recreational use, and the coalition of groups that came together on medical legislation likely won’t last long. The police chiefs are mounting opposition to the ballot measure and, for now, marijuana and policy interests are lining up on different sides. If a measure passes, interest groups will open their wallets again to influence legislative regulations.
With the measure looming, the Legislature passed AB 266, which merges proposals separately favored by some members of the medical cannabis industry and police chiefs and cities. The bill developed regulations for the first time since voters approved medical marijuana in 1996.
“The chiefs’ position was that we need regulations so the abusive use can be curtailed,” said John Lovell, a longtime lobbyist for the California Police Chiefs Association.
Lovell contends that the chiefs’ support last year had nothing to do with the ballot measure on the horizon. The chiefs came around in part because of “a recognition that the other side was mobilized and had money.”
Many also credit Bradley, a former police officer, for bridging the gap between law enforcement and business with a keen ability to speak cop and stoner. Built like a football player, Bradley grew up the son of a conservative pastor. He was raised to believe that using marijuana was on par with “killing babies,” he said.
Bradley worked as a police officer for six years and suffered post-traumatic stress related to his job. A doctor prescribed medications, but he was still anxiety-ridden with severe panic attacks by the time he was laid off in 2009. He said he tried pot and it worked, eliminating his dependency on prescription drugs. He got a medical card and started advising patients and businesses, eventually forming the association in 2013.
Bradley said his approach to lobbying lawmakers on medical marijuana regulations has been criticized by some of his members and industry players. Instead of preaching the virtues of medical cannabis and miracle-like stories from patients, he tells lawmakers that the industry is “really screwed up” due to a lack of regulation.
There are no rules to regulate pesticide use, or require tests to determine the quality of particular strains, he said. The setup puts doctors in a position of blindly prescribing products to children and other medical patients, he said.
Not all medical or recreational marijuana interests agree on the best way for the industry to move forward in California.
Some growers fear they won’t be able to comply with stiff new cultivation requirements. After years of prosecution, many feel averse to any government regulations or law enforcement oversight. Others question how AB 266’s provisions to protect small businesses will actually play out, and others believe the rules will hamstring their businesses.
Hezekiah Allen, the executive director of the California Growers Association who is not a registered lobbyist, said the rules and pending ballot measures will indeed push some small operators out of business. But the new interest in the industry has also given his group, and others like it, previously unavailable access.
A few years ago, he said lawmakers cringed when they saw him coming.
Born to Humboldt County pot growers, the sandy haired 32-year-old recently cut ties to the family business, opting instead to hit the halls of the Capitol to alter the minds of the state’s decision makers without the effects of THC.
“In 2012, they would roll their eyes and say ‘Oh, great, the stoners are here,’ ” Allen said, recalling reactions from legislators.
Many agree that the industry’s image is shifting away from the old days in which marijuana advocates were mostly drug policy reformers and cannabis activists.
Once largely grass-roots organizations of growers and dispensaries, they now include corporate business interests. Advocates say the Capitol no longer smells like weed on important decision days.
Steve DeAngelo, executive director of Oakland’s Harborside Health Center medical marijuana dispensary, said he, too, has witnessed the change.
Elected officials or their staff members used to cross their arms, avoid eye contact and generally seem unwelcoming during his visits. Now he’s greeted with handshakes, smiles and, sometimes, hugs.
Known as California’s weed czar, DeAngelo said the industry’s clout is rising as new political action committees form to influence elections. Cannabis Action PAC, run by Bradley’s association, spent $23,000 last year to influence campaigns.
A PAC sponsored by Weed Maps, a dispensary review and search site, had nearly $1 million in campaign cash as of Dec. 31. Ghost Management Group, the site’s parent company, gave more than $56,000 to Gavin Newsom’s campaign for governor, according to regulatory filings.
“Now we have enough financial resources to give money to these campaigns and develop relationships,” DeAngelo said. “Our relationships with elected officials are really undergoing a dramatic change.”