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Hooked on the Road: Lobbying for Cannabis in California

California Cannabis Now
Photo by Sean Donahoe

Joint Opinions

Hooked on the Road: Lobbying for Cannabis in California

Growing up in California I never watched ice hockey or was fluent in its metaphors, but over the last few months I have been reflecting on my past few years and I came across a Wayne Gretzky quote, “I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.” Without dwelling on the quote’s cheesy-but-insightful nature, there’s wisdom in its advice when applied to my work as a cannabis industry “lobbyist.”

After co-founding the California Cannabis Industry Association in 2012 and serving as its deputy director, I now realize we were ahead of our time representing the cannabis industry in Sacramento. Following a few years of simply showing up, being respectful to the capitol community, providing information about the industry and cannabis, making our case to legislators and staff and watching a mature industry coalesce into trade associations, the world caught up and there is now a thriving representation with CCIA, the California Growers Association, delivery services, extractors and regional industry groups.

My career path then took me to the Coalition for Cannabis Policy Reform, where I drafted policy, sat on working groups, conducted townhall meetings throughout the state and raised awareness before the emergence of the Adult Use of Marijuana Act (now Proposition 64). By that time I was using my skills and networks from my previous work in political campaigns to consult for cannabis clients.

In the past year, I have traveled from Humboldt to San Diego and spoken in front of city councils, county boards of supervisors, planning commissions at industry and activist conferences, a legal conference, an investment conference, newspaper editorial boards, on talk radio and television, for political clubs, Women Grow meetings, as an appointed city commissioner, and in backrooms of dispensaries or remote cannabis gardens. I was constantly on the road headed to where I surmised, “the puck was going to be.”

As California moves to license cannabis businesses, local ordinances must be first crafted. To be done effectively it takes both a fluency with relevant state laws and a commitment to the relationship-building that is the lifeblood of local politics. Building relations takes time and repetition, so most weeks for the last several years I have flown or driven from my home in Oakland to now familiar cities and counties, building progress or stumbling short, but always learning as I moved towards that green puck.

Traveling from places like Adelanto to San Luis Obispo, I obviously slept in questionable motel rooms, but more memorable are the humorous, frustrating and inspiring situations. Behind closed doors, in conversations with law enforcement or local opposition, humor is the best tool to disarm skeptics and humanize the cannabis industry. Let’s be honest, even cops and conservative grandmothers giggle every time they catch themselves using “baked in” or “smoke out” or (always a favorite) “not to get in the weeds” while discussing the intricacies of land use zoning. We are all human and just trying to figure out how to better regulate commercial cannabis, according to our personal and community preferences. In terms of frustrating situations, there is nothing worse than speaking early in a public meeting and then listen to prohibitionist speaker after speaker or illogical arguments without having a chance to rebut, correct, or clarify before the officials begin their deliberation.

Lastly, while I am often critical of my own public speaking there’s nothing more selfishly inspiring than hearing a cannabis grower, a concerned local citizen, or even an elected official reference “as Sean Donahoe said earlier…” Having your hard and sometimes lonely road life validated, knowing that laws are changing, clients are satisfied and an exhilarating industry is being organized are the rewards that I have found as a California cannabis lobbyist.

Have you ever gotten involved with local politics to advocate cannabis? Tell us about your experiences.

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