Dan Morain

Lobbyists dismissed her as ‘Pot Girl.’ Now they want her business

Lobbyist Amy Jenkins represents cannabis clients

"No regrets," she tells naysayers who tried to steer her away from this particular career path.
Up Next
"No regrets," she tells naysayers who tried to steer her away from this particular career path.

Amy Jenkins took a break from a busy day in the Capitol to reminisce. When she left her job as a legislative staffer in 2014, other lobbyists warned her against representing an industry that was illicit.

“People said, ‘Don’t do it. You will ruin your reputation. You will be ‘Pot Girl,’ ” she said.

In business attire and a string of pearls, Pot Girl has become blue chip. On a day last week, five months after voters approved Proposition 64 legalizing marijuana for recreational use, Jenkins was tracking 11 bills, shuttling from the Assembly Business & Professions Committee to the Assembly Public Safety Committee to the Senate Elections Committee, all in the service of California’s newest legal multibillion-dollar business.

“All those naysayers are calling me now asking me to throw some business their way,” she said.

Her main client, the California Cannabis Industry Association, was good for $115,000 in the 2015-16 legislative session. It should expect to pay more in this one. In 2014, there were two marijuana-related bills. That grew to six in 2015, and 21 in 2016. So far this year there are 61, everything from how to tax weed to how to legally deliver it. Each bill is a lobbyist’s payday. To keep up with the legislation, Jenkins organized the Cannabis Caucus, made up of 13 lobby firms that have weed-related clients.

Her firm, Platinum Advisors, was the seventh-highest billing firm in the 2015-16 legislative session at $9.4 million. The sixth-ranked firm, California Strategies, billed $9.8 million and has eight marijuana-related clients, including Weedmaps, the Yelp of the marijuana business.

Weedmaps’ former CEO made news when he committed a blunder by speaking honestly, saying he aspired to become the Philip Morris of the marijuana business. Toward that end, Weedmaps donated $194,000 to candidates in the last campaign, and $1 million to legalize marijuana. Weedmaps also retained Lang, Hansen, O’Malley and Miller, the second-biggest billing lobby firm in town at $12.5 million. Fittingly, Lang represents tobacco giant Philip Morris.

In 2015, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, the main proponent of Proposition 64, issued a “blue ribbon commission” report saying the goal of legalization “should be to prevent the growth of a large, corporate marijuana industry dominated by a small number of players, as we see with Big Tobacco or the alcohol industry.”

“The experience of tobacco and alcohol control shows that large corporations with resources for political influence (legislative lobbying, campaign contributions, regulatory interference) and marketing muscle will promote widespread and heavy use to increase sales and profits,” the report said. “Legislative behavior in this context is often incongruent with public health goals.”

One person’s incongruency is another person’s opportunity.

During the Proposition 64 campaign, proponents promised weed would only be delivered to homes or other locations by couriers operating from storefronts, where buyers would be required to show identification proving they are 21.

On Tuesday, representatives of a newly formed trade group, the California Cannabis Couriers Association, urged that the Assembly Business and Professions Committee approve their business model, which entails operating not from storefronts but from homes or other facilities that get no foot traffic. Gonzalez, Quintana, Hunter & Cruz, another top lobby firm, represents the couriers.

During the Proposition 64 campaign, Sen. Dianne Feinstein warned that once legal, the marijuana dealers would advertise on television, which would be viewed by minors. Backers of the initiative derided Feinstein’s claim, and a journalism fact-check outfit called it “mostly false.”

Last week, a mostly saccharin TV ad began airing in Southern California depicting heartwarming and inspirational people. Discover Honor. Discover Love. Discover Acceptance. Discover Grace. And so went the insipid commercial, first reported on by the L.A. Times. The spot ends with a company logo and the words Discover Eureka Vapor, a marijuana vaping product. And the company will arrange to deliver to your home. Eureka.

Lest there be any doubt that cannabis lobbying is part of the Capitol mainstream, Gov. Jerry Brown and Democratic and Republican legislative leaders received a letter last month urging that they limit taxes and regulation and “encourage capital investment, not stifle it.”

Not surprisingly, Jenkins’ client, the California Cannabis Industry Association, signed the letter. But the other signatories were noteworthy: business trade groups including the California Retailers Association, the California Restaurant Association, the California Manufacturers & Technology Association, the National Federation of Independent Business, and the California Business Properties Association. They’re seizing the opportunity to grow their organizations with new paying members.

Bill Dombrowski, longtime president of the California Retailers, has a few marijuana business members now. That’s about to change: “The way it sounds, I’m going to have quite a few in a short time. They say, ‘We are legal, and we want to be treated as if we’re legal, and we need expertise.’ 

On Tuesday, Jenkins headed to the Senate Elections Committee, where she would link up with the lobbyist for that most conservative anti-tax group, the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association. Jarvis wants open access to local ballots. So does the marijuana business. So they were pushing for a bill that would limit local authorities’ ability to block access to ballots.

“Where we have common ground, we will work with anybody,” said Jon Coupal, head of the Jarvis organization. As will Jenkins.

It’s not shocking that Howard Jarvis, the retailers and all the rest are walking hand in hand with Pot Girl. Lobbying goes on in the Capitol. What’s mildly insulting is that some legalization backers promised to somehow limit lobbying. Jenkins, having seized an opportunity to get in early, is shaping laws that will affect a newly legalized and commercialized business for years to come. That’s heady for a lobbyist. Whether it’s good or not for the rest of us, we’ll find out.