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Meet the lobbyists who helped make pot respectable. Portraits by Ryan Angel Meza
Every other Tuesday for the past several months, a group known as the “Cannabis Caucus” has gathered in the downtown offices of a leading lobbying firm to discuss, over takeout lunches, the latest political news around marijuana. Reporters aren’t allowed into the meetings, but participants acknowledge it is a testing ground for proposals on taxes, regulations, public health provisions and a slew of other details now surrounding the marijuana trade.
“It’s fun, people who are all like-minded,” says one caucus participant, Niccolo De Luca, a bow tie-wearing lobbyist with Townsend Public Affairs, who has thick brown hair, slight horizontal wrinkles on his forehead and a heavy yet carefully trimmed beard styled somewhat in the manner of the Paris haut monde of the late 19th century. One could imagine him with a monocle and a watch chain dangling from his chest pocket. “Everyone has a handful of cannabis clients—dispensaries, cultivators, manufacturers. It’s information sharing. A close-knit community. This has been the most fun policy I’ve worked on. There’s been a lot of setbacks, and no one ever quit, everyone just kept fighting the fight.”
Niccolo De Luca
SOMETHING STRANGE HAS BEEN HAPPENING in the halls of power in Sacramento recently. Polling numbers throughout the spring showed that close to 60 percent of likely voters supported marijuana legalization. The California Democratic Party endorsed the Adult Use of Marijuana Act—the November ballot initiative that, if it passes, will create the biggest legalized marijuana market in the world. Politicians began considering two bills to create statewide tax structures for the marijuana industry. But even before all those events occurred, pot had become respectablized.
Legislators who, even three or four years ago, didn’t want to touch the issue of full-blown legalization with a 10-foot barge pole, and who only reluctantly dealt with issues relating to medical marijuana, are now eager to hear from lobbyists. Most lobbyists until recently steered clear of the issue of regulating and taxing marijuana. However, a plethora of industry associations and other cannabis groups have stepped up to the plate to hire these lobbyists to talk to these politicians.
Now there are the California Cannabis Industry Association (CCIA), three cannabis farmers’ groups and a testing laboratory association. A smartphone app service, Eaze, which arranges pot deliveries to medical marijuana patients, has a lobbyist working the Capitol. The California State Board of Equalization, which has a dog in the fight because of the potential tax revenue involved, has its own lobbyist working on marijuana issues, as well as a task force for coming up with recommendations on the pot industry. The League of California Cities, the Rural Counties association and the California State Association of Counties have all recently come out in favor of creating one form or another of a regulated marijuana industry, though not all of them support legalizing recreational usage.
“WE WANT TO BE REGULATED, taxed, compliant, sustainable and treated like any other business is treated,” says Amy Jenkins, a lobbyist with the firm Platinum Advisors, one of whose clients is CCIA.
Marijuana is not the preserve of tie dye-wearing Emerald Triangle outlaws anymore, back-to-landers who began cultivating cannabis during the counterculture years and defiantly kept it up even in the face of President Ronald Reagan’s militarized Campaign Against Marijuana Planting. Realistically, as hydroponics turned the growing of pot into a precise, and extremely lucrative, science, it hasn’t really been their preserve for decades. Instead, to the chagrin of groups such as the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, the district attorneys and many police organizations, all groups that still oppose legalization, marijuana now walks the halls of power in the statehouse, its spokespeople wearing suits and quoting from obscure provisions in the tax code. “We redefined people’s perceptions of what a cannabis entity or advocate is and what they look like,” explains Jenkins, a tall woman with long ginger hair, wearing a black suit and a heavily bejeweled bracelet.
NOT ALL LONGTIME OBSERVERS of the political scene are so sanguine, and as the election nears, some seasoned analysts don’t believe that the marijuana legalization initiative will ultimately pass in November. They argue that as voters start paying attention to issues such as what legalization would mean regarding people driving while high, or big-box businesses muscling in on the pot trade, the public’s views might shift. They argue that the way the initiative is worded could allow people previously convicted of hard-drug trafficking to receive licenses that would let them take part in the marijuana trade. And they suggest that the proposition’s language would allow businesses to do end runs against regulations intended to limit where and how marijuana could be grown and sold.
Some also note the strange logic of making it easier to buy and consume marijuana at the same time that members of the legislature have been making it harder for people under the age of 21 to buy and use cigarettes, as well as nicotine vaping products. A number of trade unions, wary of the big-business model embraced by the initiative’s crafters, and fearing they won’t get a say in labor conditions shaping the new industry, have also withheld their support. And some legislators have expressed concern at the crime-encouraging dangers of having so much cash flooding communities—since, regardless of state-level legalization initiatives, the federal government still considers marijuana contraband, which means that banks can’t legally handle moneys generated by the trade, which, in turn, means that the trade remains cash-based rather than reliant on lines of credit or checks for large transactions. Strangely enough, even the lobbyists, working in Sacramento for marijuana businesses, have to be paid in stacks of greenbacks.
But, regardless of whether recreational usage is legalized, because of medical marijuana, the reliance so many local governments now have on revenues from taxing marijuana growers and dispensaries, and the detailed regulatory structure that has recently been enacted statewide to deal with the industry, pot will remain center stage in Sacramento’s political conversation in the coming years.
For John Lovell, a larger-than-life staple of Sacramento’s lobbying scene and a onetime amateur boxer who has represented numerous law enforcement groups in the state over the last few decades, this isn’t all good news. The lobbyist, with a shock of gray hair, a ruddy face and a penchant for wearing red suspenders to hold up his pinstriped trousers, quotes a slew of public health data showing that regular pot use negatively impacts users’ IQs. “How is the arc of social progress advanced by permitting yet another mind-altering substance to be made more easily available to the public?” he asks. “How is the public weal benefited?”
Lovell, however, recognizes that his is an increasingly lonely voice in a political climate where many of his colleagues in the world of lobbying are evermore seduced by the dollar signs surrounding all things marijuana. “If you have well-funded interests which are interacting in the political environment, it becomes very difficult to put those interests in a larger political perspective,” he says, somewhat resignedly.
IN 2015, Assemblyman Rob Bonta pushed a bill to extend and standardize medicinal cannabis regulations, which at the time were nothing more than a patchwork quilt of local ordinances. In June of that year, as the bill began working its way through the hearings process, Niccolo De Luca made his way into its governance committee hearing. Back when it was still something of a taboo, De Luca had been one of the first lobbyists in town to represent pot clients. But now, to his amazement, he saw in front of him representatives from many of the city’s top lobbying firms, all staking their claim to what was starting to look like something of a 21st-century gold rush. “I remember thinking, ‘Holy shit, people have figured this out,’” he says. “I had my aha moment: ‘I think this is going to happen.’ Bonta’s bill—statewide regulations—took away the stigma and gave people cover: This is the law of the state.”
A year later, as he sips a hot drink at Freeport Bakery one warm spring morning, De Luca estimates that more than 30 firms have now made cannabis a part of their portfolio, and that perhaps as many as 50 consultants in town are working on the issue. More lobbyists, PR firms and consulting groups seemed to be jumping aboard this particular gravy train every day.
“This year,” says Nate Bradley, founder of the California Cannabis Industry Association, which has offices on K Street, “we’re tracking more than 20 bills. They are all different facets of regulation, from tribal involvement to union involvement to paraphernalia to tax breaks.”
Bradley, who grew up the oldest of six children, home-schooled by his deeply conservative parents, both of whom were organizers for the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue, had previously been a police officer in Wheatland and a sheriff’s deputy in Sutter County. Now 36 years old, he had his own eureka moment around pot a few years earlier.
As a young officer, Bradley suffered back injuries while on the job and found himself in chronic pain. He also had experiences that, he said, left him with PTSD, and he found himself veering dangerously toward a pain-pill and alcohol dependency.
One day, when his back pain had gotten too much to handle, Bradley, who as a cop had absorbed an anti-drug message for years, decided to go against his law enforcement impulses and give marijuana a go. “That shit helped me get off of every pill I was on,” he remembers. “A light bulb went off in my head. Within five minutes, 30 years of anxiety fell off my shoulders all at once. I felt like what it was like to have a clear head for the first time.”
A large man with a receding hairline, a trim beard and a deep suntan, comfortable in jeans and checkered shirts, Bradley looks more a farmer than an industry consultant. After quitting the police force, in 2010 he became a spokesman for the Prop 19 campaign—a ballot initiative on legalization that, ultimately, didn’t pass. In the wake of that work, he decided to start the CCIA, to promote what he now saw as the virtues of pot. He incorporated the business and started seeking out members. “Fast forward three and a half years,” he says from an office where there hangs a stars-and-stripes flag with half of the stars replaced by hemp leaves, “and we have 180 dues-paying members.” He meets regularly with staff at the California Department of Consumer Affairs and even sits down with GOP politicians to talk about taxes and the benefits of small government versus big government. They will, he says of some of his GOP contacts, stop him “and give me hugs in the middle of the street.”
“They stopped seeing it (marijuana) as a problem,” he says. “They started seeing it as another industry in the state to be regulated.”
LOVELL SITS IN HIS SMALL 11TH STREET OFFICE across L Street from the Capitol building, history books and biographies cluttering his shelves; coffee mugs commemorating the 1916 Easter Rising in Ireland against English rule on the surfaces of his two roll-top desks; lifetime achievement awards from groups such as the California Police Chiefs Association and photos—of family members and also of historical figures, such as Thaddeus Stevens—lining his walls. “I first saw the change in 2013,” he says. “Prior to that, you had the defense bar, the ACLU and individual marijuana activists. On the other side you had law enforcement and community groups—particularly from fragile neighborhoods. In ’13, you started seeing respected lobbying firms advocating for the marijuana side of the debate. You started to have people look at the potential for the industry in the wake of Colorado and Washington,” both of which states’ electorates voted to create legal marijuana markets.
Bay Area-based Elizabeth Conway, who co-founded the government affairs firm Gide in 2015, has noticed the same thing. Shortly after Gide was founded, it took on a cannabis technology company as a client. In the year since, Conway has stood witness to what she calls “a big sea change” in the conversation around pot. Industry spokespeople have, she notes, reached out even to law enforcement groups that oppose them. It’s no longer considered out of bounds for the local marijuana dealer to have a conversation with the local police chief about how best to ensure that the industry is run safely and with appropriate regulatory safeguards built in.
Gide, Conway asserts, is inundated with calls from cannabis-related businesses that have gone legit and are looking to establish connections in Sacramento. “Several doors that were closed are now welcoming cannabis business,” she says. “They’ve gotten a lot more comfortable with it, all in the last year.”
Another person who has seen the vast shift in sentiments is David Quintana. The 52-year-old partner at the tony Gonzalez, Quintana, Hunter & Cruz lobby firm currently has four clients in the cannabis industry.
Sitting on a black leather swivel chair at a marble-topped conference table, in a room one wall of which is adorned with a large California Republic bear flag painted onto eight wooden boards—a room redolent of power, of corporate clout—Quintana, his head clean shaven, his expensive white shirt open at the collar, the cuffs fashionably turned up, talks fast. In 2010, he remembers, he was working for Richard Lee, the founder of the cannabis university Oaksterdam. He was, he recalls, considered something of an outlier. Now, he says, laughing heartily, “It’s night and day. It’s not even close. You can always tell an issue has become normalized when other lobbyists are trying to steal your clients. Back then I couldn’t get legislators to go to Oaksterdam. Now, everybody wants to go.”
When the CCIA holds information receptions on the patio at Chops restaurant, 20 to 30 legislators will sometimes show up.
“IT’S BEEN PRETTY SEISMIC in terms of how quickly perceptions have changed and acceptance of the industry by many different staff members and legislators,” says Amy Jenkins.
Nate Bradley agrees. His back still hurts at times. He can’t sit for long periods of time, and so, in his office, he has put together an Ikea desk that he can elevate at the press of a button, converting it from a sit-down to a stand-up desk as his pain level shifts. But even though there are days when he spends the entire time standing, in general he feels that things are going in the right direction.
“The industry,” he says, “was able to come out and professionalize itself. And now they’re treated like every other industry. We’re looked at as a legitimate industry association.”
For Quintana, the new world still takes some getting used to. “I feel like—what’s the word I’m looking for—I feel like that dude who stood where Los Angeles is today and said, ‘Hmm, this would be a good place for a city.’ I feel kind of vindicated, because when I was representing them (Oaksterdam), I thought, ‘Gee, maybe this is a fringe issue and will always be a fringe issue.’ Then, people made Cheech and Chong jokes. Now, it’s pure policy.”