Dan Morain

Dan Morain: Cannabis industry poised to become Capitol power player

Dan Morain
Dan Morain

Nearly all the power players showed up at the Citizen Hotel a few months ago, seizing the opportunity to give legislative candidates an early indoctrination into the ways of the Capitol.

Bankers, Realtors, doctors, casino operators, labor, alcohol and the insurance industry sponsored the daylong Leadership California Institute session.

Oh, and the California Cannabis Industry Association was there, too.

“We are happy to report that CCIA was received with open arms,” the organization said in an email to its supporters after the event. “Almost every attendee made an attempt to come speak with us during the day, including the 30+ legislative candidates.”

It had to happen. The marijuana business has become a tenant in the Third House, a term for the lobbying industry. In last year’s legislative session, Aaron Read & Associates, perennially one of Sacramento’s top billing firms, added legalization proponents to its client roster, which also includes police unions.

Now the California Cannabis Industry Association is seeking to establish itself as a joint trade association-chamber of commerce for the marijuana industry. To add to its air of legitimacy, the group has rented part of Chops, the watering hole across L Street from the Capitol, for a reception for lawmakers on Tuesday night.

“Everybody wants to know if we have a PAC,” Nate Bradley, the head of the nascent group, told me.

The answer is not yet.

But Bradley and his partner, Sean Donahoe, have high hopes, maybe $500,000 for Year One, though they have commitments for far less. They plan to endorse candidates for legislative and local races, including district attorney in Humboldt County (where else?).

Californians rejected a marijuana-legalization initiative in 2010. Perennial legislation to gently regulate the existing so-called medical marijuana industry fails. But Colorado and Washington state voters’ decisions to legalize the weed has emboldened promoters of full legalization in California.

Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, a legalization advocate, has not decided whether to embrace an initiative for this November, but others hope to move forward. In the Legislature, players intend to start up where they ended in 2013, when legislation stalled on the last day of the session.

As Newsom might say, legalization – or another serious attempt at it – is coming whether we like it or not.

I don’t, though I also don’t care what consenting adults ingest.

California long ago decriminalized marijuana. Anyone 18 and older can get a 215 card and buy the pot of their choice. People hardly hide in darkened rooms, as you can smell on almost any street in midtown Sacramento. But total legalization – and the commercialization that will follow – would not be an advance for our state.

Leave aside the impact on kids of marketing. Take just one issue, the influence of money on politics. Some politicians might hesitate to accept donations from the marijuana industry now. But once it’s legal, the rush for the industry’s green will be on.

Think gambling money. California voters legalized Vegas-style Indian casinos in 2000. Casino tribes spend tens of millions on campaigns. They control gambling legislation so much that consultants to charities seeking legislative authorization for small raffle games first must check in with casino lobbyists to make sure they won’t be infringing on tribes’ turf.

Or money from the alcohol industry. California has a reputation for being a high-tax state. But the Tax Policy Center ranks California’s tax on wine as the nation’s second lowest. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger pushed to raise the alcohol tax by a nickel per drink in 2009. It went nowhere, thanks to industry lobbying. And by a spread of 69-31 percent, voters in 1990 rejected an initiative to raise alcohol taxes, thanks to the alcohol industry’s money.

Or tobacco money. In this anti-tobacco state, tobacco industry lobbyists have a harder time flicking lint off their jackets than they do killing tax legislation. The Legislature has not raised tobacco taxes since 1993, and that was a mere 2 cents.

Marijuana is said to be California’s largest cash crop. Imagine the millions that could flow into campaign coffers. Politicians would be paralyzed, unable to impose any serious tax or regulation opposed by the industry.

Donahoe and Bradley, not slick in any way, hardly are king- and queen-makers. I chatted with them for an hour in their modest office around the corner from Frank Fats. Nice guys. They recently hired a lobbyist, Glenn Backes, who previously represented the Drug Policy Alliance, a well-funded legalization advocacy group.

Bradley, 34, is a former cop in the small farming town of Wheatland. His father, Reb Bradley, is a conservative pastor who worked on legislative campaigns supporting such staunch Northern California conservatives as Barbara Alby, David Knowles and Tim Leslie.

Bradley believes marijuana products saved his life, or at least allowed him to wean himself off anti-anxiety pills. Donahoe, 38, a veteran of various Democratic campaigns, uses it to ease pain from temporomandibular disorder.

They readily acknowledged they are operating in an odd corner of politics, the economy and culture. I mused that getting growers and others in the industry to join a trade group must be like herding chickens. Donahoe likened it to organizing pirates.

“These guys are determined. I give them that,” said consultant Mike Madrid, who organized the candidates’ forum at the Citizen and believes California will legalize marijuana. “It is a matter of when, not if.”

The first legislative candidate endorsed by California Cannabis Industry Association is Matt Pope, a Napa County planning commissioner, one of four major Democratic candidates seeking an open Assembly seat that includes Napa and Yolo counties. He welcomes the support.

“I’m pretty sure that one or more (opponents) will be taking money from alcohol-related businesses. I’m totally fine with that,” Pope told me.

Pope won’t be the last legislative candidate to receive a California Cannabis Industry Association endorsement. Many more will take industry money. The final fight over full legalization and the commercialization that will follow is well underway, whether we like it or not. Once it’s legal, the industry will become one of the dominant power players in the Capitol.

Related stories from Sacramento Bee