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The Age of Cannabis Money in Politics 

Wednesday, May 11 2016

If the Mission District manifested its own member of Congress — and if this representative were a he in his late 60s — he would look exactly like Earl Blumenauer.

A mix of Bernie Sanders and Bill Nye the Science Guy, decked out in a bright-patterned bow-tie and plaid-checked sportcoat — and with a bicycle lapel pin — Blumenauer cut a natty, professor-like figure as we shared coffee on the patio of a Sixth Street café (a phrase that still feels unreal to type).

The representative for that hipster haven to our north called Portland, where there are currently over 100 retail outlets selling recreational cannabis, Blumenauer was in town last week for the first stop of a four-day, multi-city swing through California. In San Francisco and Silicon Valley, he had meetings scheduled with Uber and Google, as well as a lecture at Stanford and a campaign event in Santa Barbara, before making stops in Las Vegas and points east.

In addition to meeting with business types, lawyers, and politicos, Blumenauer is mounting a nationwide tour. He's traveling to every state in the union that has a legalization measure on this fall's ballot — places like Ohio, Vermont, Florida, and Maine as well as California — to talk up the many benefits and few appreciable drawbacks of allowing adults to buy and sell cannabis, as well as the necessity of allowing legal weed businesses to openly use banks and claim their business expenses on their taxes (two things they still cannot do).

This is something he's been working on for a while — he helped pass a decriminalization bill in the Oregon state legislature in 1973. And over 40 years later, the final victory is in reach.

"If we do this right," he says, "in five years, it's game over" for cannabis prohibition.

But to do that, he needs money. And that was the other reason for his visit: A few hours after our coffee date, he was at the Twitter building, collecting checks from entrepreneurs — who paid between $150 and $1,000 to bend his ear — at a fundraiser thrown by the cannabis industry.

Out-of-town politicians rolling through town is nothing new. President Barack Obama regularly uses the Bay Area and Silicon Valley as an ATM, and of course Sen. Dianne Feinstein and U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi are happy to collect checks from their neighbors. But it would still be a quantum leap to see the likes of them or Mayor Ed Lee comfortably pressing the flesh with people smelling faintly of vape pen, however well-dressed and eager to contribute.

So in the meantime, elected from elsewhere are happy to fill the gap and take money from marijuana, which is more than eager to get involved with government.

A few nights before "Congressman B" rolled through town, statewide politicians were in San Francisco, and making promises to a room full of weed growers at the Rexford near Union Square.

Assemblyman Rob Bonta (D-Alameda) is one of the lead authors of the Medical Marijuana Regulation and Safety Act, which explicitly authorized for-profit commercial cannabis activity in California. He was the main attraction at an event benefiting the California Growers' Association, the major lobby — but, believe it or not, not the only lobby — for cannabis growers in Sacramento.

Also there was San Francisco Supervisor Scott Wiener, who openly hopes to represent the cannabis industry's needs in the state Senate (and who appears to have outflanked his colleague and competitor for the seat, Supervisor Jane Kim, on the weed issue).

"It was sort of a farcical situation for a long time, where we pretended the cannabis industry didn't exist," Wiener says. "It does exist. It employs a lot of people, and it creates a product a lot of people want."

Pot is far from Wiener's top issue, and cannabis is not giving Wiener anywhere near the amount of money seen he sees from real estate or other interests. But for now, in addition to publicly supporting the Adult Use of Marijuana Act, the recreational cannabis legalization measure that California will vote on in the fall, Wiener — the wonky, self-declared urbanist and Harvard lawyer who looks to be about the last person you'd expect to be pro-cannabis — is the local elected official who has done the most on the cannabis issue.

Wiener sponsored the legislation to create a city task force to figure out how to get San Francisco ready for legalization. He is also the lone local elected official pushing city bureaucrats to figure out what the city needs to do to ensure that its current medical cannabis industry — roughly 30 medical marijuana retail outlets, plus the warehouses that may number in the dozens where some of that marijuana is grown — complies with Bonta's MMRSA and can acquire the state licenses that will be required to stay in business past Jan. 1, 2018.

All that is is to say Scott Wiener has done more than nothing. Which, for now at least, is worth some checks from cannabis.


About The Author

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts has spent most of his adult life working in San Francisco news media, which is to say he's still a teenager in Middle American years. He has covered marijuana, drug policy, and politics for SF Weekly since 2009.


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