Legislators Shaping the Calif. Cannabiz

By Willis Jacobson
Dec 11, 2020
Courtesy of Getty Images

Once you get to know the lawmakers, meet some of the key lobbyists and other power players on the California cannabis scene. 

The California cannabis industry is largely guided by decisions made in Sacramento. With many potentially industry-altering changes coming in 2021, these are the movers and shakers steering the state’s cannabis policy:  

In the Senate

Steven Bradford (D-Gardena): Self-styled “citizen activist”

Bradford has built a reputation for addressing issues related to institutional inequity. It’s reflected in his work on cannabis issues.

  • Years in office: Elected in 2016 and then re-elected in November. Current term expires in 2024. Previously served in the Assembly from 2009-14.
  • Legislative highlights:
    • In 2018, Bradford authored SB 1294, also known as the California Cannabis Equity Act, which was signed into law. The bill, the first of its kind in the nation, established the framework and identified funding for the formation of a statewide social equity program. The program aims to foster cannabis business opportunities for people from communities disproportionately impacted by the War on Drugs and marijuana criminalization.
    • In 2019, Bradford authored SB 595, another bill signed into law, which set up a system for commercial cannabis applicants to have their application, licensing or renewal fees deferred or waived if they are unable to pay them. The law aims to bolster industry participation among people from economically disadvantaged communities.
    • This year, Bradford authored SB 1244, signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom, which allows law enforcement officers and regulators to have cannabis samples analyzed at licensed testing labs. Its goal is to improve the efficiency of criminal investigations, which can help local agencies crack down on illegal operators.

Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco): Drug reform advocate

A former San Francisco Supervisor (2011-16), Wiener has been a champion for the liberalization of drug laws, including those affecting cannabis.

  • Years in office: Elected in 2016 and then re-elected in November. Current term expires in 2024.
  • Legislative highlights:
    • Shortly after his re-election, Wiener announced plans to introduce legislation that would decriminalize psychedelic drugs. “We ultimately need to decriminalize all drug use & stop putting people in prison for drug use & possession,” he wrote in a Nov. 20 tweet.
    • This year, Wiener was among the sponsors of an unsuccessful bill (AB 362) that called for pilot programs of so-called safe consumption sites – where intravenous drug users can pick up clean syringes and use in a safe environment – in San Francisco and Oakland.
    • He also authored SB 34, a 2019 law that went into effect this year, which allows licensees to provide free flower and other cannabis products, all tax-exempt, to MED patients who struggle to afford such products. Nonprofits, through compassionate care programs, had previously been providing donated cannabis to MED patients, but Proposition 64 – the 2016 measure that legalized REC – required those donations to be taxed.

Mike McGuire (D-North Coast/North Bay): Voice for growers

A native Northern Californian from a family of farmers, McGuire has led on multiple cannabis matters. His district encompasses the most fertile cannabis growing region in the country, including the Emerald Triangle counties of Humboldt, Trinity and Mendocino. 

  • Years in office: Elected in 2014 and then re-elected in 2018. Current term expires in 2022.
  • Legislative highlights:
    • McGuire authored SB 67, which was signed this year by Gov. Newsom and will establish a first-of-its-kind cannabis appellations program. The program, set to start on Jan. 1, will enable growers to market the unique qualities of plants from their region, while preventing others from claiming false origins.
    • McGuire has been involved in several other cannabis matters while in the Senate. He pushed for an overhaul of the state’s MED system in 2015, prior to Prop 64, and helped develop the tax rates that were ultimately included in Prop 64.

Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley): Common-sense reform

A San Francisco native, Skinner cites criminal-justice reform, the environment and public safety among issues that matter most to her. But she has also been instrumental in the development of some cannabis laws.

  • Years in office: Elected in 2016 and then re-elected in November. Current term expires in 2024.
  • Legislative highlights:
    • She has introduced or sponsored bills – all unsuccessful – that would have allowed cannabis companies to provide free samples to educate retailers about their products. The practice of providing trade samples is common in most industries, but state law prohibits it within the cannabis industry. A Skinner-authored bill to change this had support from several industry organizations, but died in committee.
    • She has been among the sponsors of multiple successful bills related to cannabis, including SB 34, which authorized the compassionate care donations. 

In the Assembly

Rob Bonta (D-Oakland): Crusader for lower taxes

A native of the Philippines, Bonta has been active in cannabis matters, particularly related to taxation, since joining the Assembly.

  • Years in office: Elected in 2012 and then re-elected in 2014, 2016, 2018 and 2020. Current term expires in 2022.
  • Legislative highlights:
    • He has pushed for three years to have the state’s cannabis excise tax reduced, from 15% to 11%, and to have the cultivation tax eliminated. Doing so would lead to more operators and consumers in the legal market and would bolster overall tax revenue, he argues. Bonta has pledged to continue this push in 2021.
    • Bonta introduced a bill this year (AB 2355) that would have barred employers from firing or denying jobs to MED patients on the basis of their MED use. The bill, which died in committee, would have exempted safety-sensitive jobs like bus drivers and pilots.
    • He’s authored or sponsored many other cannabis-related bills, including a 2018 law (AB 1793) that streamlined the process for expungement of cannabis-related criminal offenses.

Jim Cooper (D-Elk Grove): Cop turned legislator

A Sacramento native, Cooper was a captain in the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department for 30 years before launching his political career. Considered a moderate Democrat, he spent 15 years serving the city of Elk Grove, as its founding mayor and as a councilman, before joining the Assembly.

  • Years in office: Elected in 2014 and then re-elected in 2016, 2018 and 2020. Current term expires in 2022.
  • Legislative highlights
    • He has supported a range of successful cannabis bills, including SB 34, which protects compassion programs, and AB 2215, which allows veterinarians to discuss cannabis treatments – though not prescribe MED – for animals without worry of having their licenses revoked.
    • He authored an unsuccessful bill (AB 3) that would have established an Adolescent Cannabis Prevention Fund that would take in cannabis fines and fees to support programs to prevent underage access to cannabis. The bill, first introduced in 2018, has not made it out of committee.
    • In 2017, he was lead author on a bill (AB 1700) that would have required cannabis businesses to have at least one employee undergo a mandatory 30-hour course on workplace protections. The bill, which died in committee, aimed to prevent abuse of workers, particularly women, after a report revealed widespread sexual harassment in California’s nascent cannabis industry. 

Blanca Rubio (D-Baldwin Park): Consumer advocate

A native of Mexico who immigrated to the U.S. as a young child, Rubio lists advocacy for children, women, families, students and immigrants among her top priorities. She worked for 16 years as a teacher before joining the Assembly. She and her sister, Sen. Susan Rubio, are the first sisters to serve at the same time in the California Legislature.

  • Years in office: Elected in 2016 and then re-elected, unopposed, in 2018 and 2020. Current term expires in 2022.
  • Legislative highlights
    • In 2019, Rubio introduced a bill (AB 1417) that would have created civil penalties for websites, apps and other platforms that promote unlicensed cannabis businesses. The bill, which died in committee, aimed to cut down on illegal operators being advertised on popular sites like Weedmaps. It required such ads to display a license number and imposed penalties up to $2,500 per day for violations.
    • This year, she authored another bill (AB 2122) that would allow state regulators to issue fines up to $30,000 per day for entities that “aid and abet” unlicensed commercial cannabis activity by publishing ads or marketing materials. The bill, which also died in committee, was supported by some industry groups but opposed by others. California NORML called the proposal overly broad and noted that it can be difficult to ascertain whether a business is licensed or not, particularly as illicit operators often counterfeit licenses.

Evan Low (D-Campbell): The whiz kid

Considered a voice for millennials, the 37-year-old Low, whose district includes portions of Silicon Valley, has been particularly active in matters involving cannabis and technology. He was just 31 when first elected.

  • Years in office: Elected in 2014 and then re-elected in 2016, 2018 and 2020. Current term expires in 2022.
  • Legislative highlights:  
    • Low is working with Assemblyman Wiener and Assemblywoman Sydney Kamlager-Dove on a psychedelic decriminalization bill they intend to introduce in 2021.
    • In 2019, Low wrote a letter to Apple CEO Tim Cook calling for the company to end a policy of prohibiting cannabis sales through its app store. Low, who served as chair of the Assembly’s Business and Professions Committee for the 2019-20 sessions, argued that the ban effectively supported illegal suppliers by limiting legal access. Apple has not changed its policy.
    • Also last year, he authored AB 1529, a bill signed into law that requires all vape cartridges and devices to be directly labeled with a universal symbol indicating they contain cannabis. Previously, such labeling was only required on outer packaging. The law aims to protect consumer safety.

In 2018, Low authored the successful AB 2402, which prevents MED patient information from being sold or traded for commercial purposes by retailers. It allows retailers to share patient information only in conjunction with processing payments and in cooperation with government officials, such as law enforcement.

Reggie Jones-Sawyer (D-Los Angeles): Industry supporter

Jones-Sawyer is a member of the California Legislative Black Caucus and has focused on several issues regarding criminal justice and cannabis reform during his time in office. He also is the first state-elected official to consume cannabis publicly, according to media reports, after he did so while attending a 2018 fundraiser in West Hollywood. 

  • Years in office: Elected in 2012 and then re-elected, unopposed, in 2014 and 2016. He beat challengers for re-election in 2018 and 2020. Current term expires in 2022. 
  • Legislative highlights:
    • Jones-Sawyer was a lead author of AB 1525, a bill signed by Gov. Newsom this year that provides protections to financial institutions that work with cannabis clients. Though it’s unclear how impactful the new law will be, due to cannabis still being federally illegal, it includes provisions that simplify banking processes for both banks and operators.
    • Also this year, he introduced AB 2094, an unsuccessful bill that would have increased fines up to $50,000 per violation for landlords who knowingly rent spaces to unlicensed cannabis operators. The bill aimed to cut into the illicit market and was supported by the California Statewide Law Enforcement Association. It died in committee after lawmakers expressed concern it could over-penalize nonviolent offenders.
    • In 2019, Jones-Sawyer authored AB 37, a law signed by Gov. Newsom that allows licensed cannabis businesses to deduct business expenses the same as traditional companies when filing state taxes. Cannabis businesses previously could not claim the same deductions as others, due to marijuana’s federal illegality. “The people of California have spoken and legalized recreational use of cannabis and we should do everything we can to help the legal cannabis industry,” he said as the bill headed to Newsom’s desk.