Willie Brown and Ammiano’s pot bill

Pub date March 26, 2013
WriterTim Redmond
SectionPolitics Blog

Assemblymember Tom Ammiano’s new medical marijuana bill seems pretty straightforward. Almost everyone in the medpot biz thinks there ought to be some sort of statewide regulations for a growing industry that operates in a mish-mash of local jurisdictions with no overall rules. If nothing else, consumer-protection policies ought to be in place. And, of course, the more the dispensaries accept, and follow, reasonable regs, the easier it is to win the mainstream political support necessary to get the feds off all of our backs and ultimately follow Colorado and Washington.

All good, right?

So Ammiano, who has been on this issue for years, is proposing that the state’s Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control — which for all its problems has experience regulating mind-altering substances — draft and oversee medpot rules.

But the industry that makes a lot of money off the legalization of medicinal weed is famously fractured — and the politics of Sacramento are often nasty. Add in former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown — who has his fingers in all sorts of business opportunities these days — and the story turns downright weird.
Ammiano’s been talking about Califonria and pot for years. He proposed legalization before the other states did, but frankly, this current state Legislature’s never going to have that kind of courage.

But he continues on with the effort. Last year, he tried to put pot under the Department of Consumer Affairs, which clearly didn’t want it; his bill died in the state Senate.

Normally, when new regulations are proposed for an industry, the Legislature holds what’s called a Sunrise Hearing, to bring all the stakeholders into a room and talk about what issues ought to be addressed. So Ammiano a few months back asked for a hearing in the Senate Business, Professions, and Economic Development Committee. No problem, said the chair, Curren Price, a Los Angeles Democrat.

But in February, five days before the hearing was set, Curran called the whole thing off. Turns out that the Governor’s Office and the Attorney General’s Office wanted no part of it, so it was hard to round up the essential players. Also, Curran was running for an open LA City Council seat and probably didn’t want the publicity. As Ammiano said at the time, “What’s up with marijuana? You can’t even have a hearing?”

Even without a hearing, he’s moving a new bill, AB 473, which would create under ABC a Division of Medical Cannabis Regulation and Enforcement. The bill is modeled on a successful effort in Colorado that has kept the feds at bay. Washington is also putting marijuana regulation under its liquor control authority.
“We’ve had not one federal intervention,” in Colorado, Matt Cook, a consultant who help write the rules in that state, said.

But just as Ammiano was preparing to line up support for his measure, another bill mysteriously appeared, in the state Senate. A “spot bill” with no actual content, the measure was set as a medical marijuana regulation placeholder. The authors: Senate President Darrell Steinberg and San Francisco’s Mark Leno.

Now: Leno’s been a big supporter of medical pot for years — but the bill wasn’t his idea. “Darrell told me he was going to do something about marijuana regulations, and he asked me if I would join him,” Leno told us.

What Leno didn’t know: Steinberg had been approached and asked to carry a bill by Willie Brown. Brown contacted the Senate president, sources tell us, and said that Ammiano was the wrong person to carry pot legislation.

Why? Who knows. Brown wouldn’t return my calls. But I can tell you with absolute certainty that Brown has been looking for ways to discredit Ammiano since 1999, when the then-supervisor challenged the mayor’s re-election in a legendary write-in campaign that galvanized the city’s left and created the momentum for the complete rejection of Brown’s politics and endorsed candidates a year later, in the first district elections.

And yes: Willie Brown carries a grudge. So it’s possible that he would go out of his way to make sure that Ammiano didn’t get credit for leading the way on what will evenutally be a huge sea chance in how California handles pot.

Now: This sort of thing isn’t viewed very highly in the hallowed halls of the state Leg, where people take their bills — and their history on issues — very seriously. Ammiano was furious, and talked to Steinberg, who (properly) apologized for stepping on his toes. Leno told us he had no intention of undermining his San Francisco colleague, that he had immense respect for Ammiano and all of his efforts, and that he wouldn’t move forward with any bill that didn’t have Ammiano’s input and support.

But it raises the question: Why is Brown even involved in medical marijuana? The only answer I can come up with is that he’s making money off it. Not as a dispensary owner or a grower, but as, in effect, a lobbyist.

When I heard Brown was messing around with the industry, I called Steve DeAngelo, who runs Harborside Health Center, the $22 million a year dispensary in Oakland. DeAngelo’s a promient leader on medical marijuana issues, and has built a respected business that pays taxes to Oakland, provides quality product, and is in many ways a model for what a dispensary should look like.

We talked for a while about Ammiano’s bill, and DeAngelo said he wants to be sure there’s community consensus. “The most important thing is that whatever passes addresses the issues and has broad supoprt in the industry,” he said. He agreed that regulation is needed, but stopped short of endorsing Ammiano’s bill, saying “there still needs to be further discussion.”

Then I asked him if he knew why Brown was talking to the state Senate president, and he told me:

“Willie Brown has been a political advisor to Harborside.”

I asked him if Harborside was paying Brown for his advice. He refused to say.

Okay then. But Brown doesn’t have much of a history of working on this issue pro bono, and is not known for serving as a “political advisor” (or doing much of anything else in the way of work) for free.

What does Brown think about the Ammiano bill? “He thinks,” DeAngelo said, “that it’s important it have a broad base of support.”

Willie Brown is not popular with the voters of California. His history of questionable (at best) ethics was among the reasons the voters approved terms limits for the Legislature. Hardly anyone on the left trusts him. A medical marijuana regulatory bill that has his fingerprints isn’t going to do much for “consensus” or “broad-based support.”

So maybe the best thing Brown could do for his client is stay the hell out of Sacramento.