Marijuana Has a Growing Influence in the State Capitol

A budtender pours marijuana from a jar at Perennial Holistic Wellness Center medical marijuana dispensary in Los Angeles.  (David McNew/Getty Images)

Even though the federal government has decided to retain marijuana as a Schedule I drug, California’s marijuana industry is gathering steam. Gov. Jerry Brown approved regulations for medical cannabis last year, and voters will weigh on legalizing recreational pot this fall.

As the industry expands, so has its influence in the state Capitol.

To track its growing clout, it’s helpful to look at the numbers. The nearly 4-year-old California Cannabis Industry Association started off in a tiny office near the Capitol. Executive Director Nate Bradley says it will soon move into a 3,000-square-foot space. His group has seen its membership jump from 80 businesses to more than 200 since the end of last year. Bradley credits the growth to the passage of medical marijuana regulations.

“When the governor signed it, he legitimized the entire industry in the state," Bradley says, "which dropped the risk profile enough that more people started to get into the industry. More people wanted to get involved.”

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According to financial disclosures, the Cannabis Industry Association has spent nearly $105,000 on direct lobbying in the 2015-2016 legislative session. That’s up from $21,000 in the previous session.

Another group, the California Growers Association, has seen its membership explode as well, from about 270 businesses to around 700. It has spent more than $78,000 on direct lobbying this legislative session. California Growers Association Executive Director Hezekiah Allen says different philosophies are starting to emerge among cannabis groups.

“As the industry sort of increases its influences here in Sacramento, it’s also becoming clear that the industry is not a monolith and there are two distinctly different paths forward," Allen says. "One that’s very small-business friendly and one that’s significantly more interested in growth.”

Allen’s organization leans more toward protecting small growers. It’s also split with other groups on issues of taxes and the distribution of marijuana. And it’s taken a neutral position on Proposition 64, which would legalize recreational pot in the state for people over 21. The Cannabis Industry Association has endorsed the ballot measure.

As the industry has taken on issues beyond whether it’s allowed to simply exist, the Cannabis Association's Bradley says the lawmakers he’s reaching out to have changed as well.

“You know, if I think I’m being over-regulated, the liberal from San Francisco isn’t going to be the one to go to," he says. "It’s going to be a business-moderate Democrat or some (Republicans).”

And marijuana-related businesses are also spending more in Sacramento. The company Weedmaps, which helps people find medical marijuana services, is listed as a major donor by the Secretary of State’s Office. Its backers have contributed $750,000 to Prop. 64. And they give money to both Democrats and Republicans, including campaigns for Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon and Assembly Republican Leader Chad Mayes. Board of Equalization Chair Fiona Ma has also received contributions.

“I see it as another industry that wants to participate. I support the medicinal cannabis industry, and I have coming from San Francisco. So I don’t see it as anything bad," Ma says.

That’s a view the marijuana industry likely hopes others will share as it finds its political feet and looks to become a more powerful force in the state Capitol.