Cultivating Clout: Marijuana Money Flows into California Politics

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Grower Anthony Nguyen sells marijuana at the medical marijuana farmers market at the California Heritage Market in Los Angeles REUTERS/David McNew

Lobbyists in slick pinstriped suits and burly veterans with tattooed arms crowded into a Capitol hearing room week as lawmakers considered a bill to make it easier for Californians to buy legal marijuana. One supporter said people need more access to the “beautiful sacred plant.” But at its core, this was a business dispute—a question of whether legislators would allow cannabis companies to reach more customers, and make more money.

The committee passed the bill—to stop cities from banning delivery services that sell pot to customers at their doorsteps—despite objections from cities and counties that favor local control. And the standing-room-only crowd that showed up to push for it revealed the new reality in California, where cannabis interests have become a formidable lobbying force.

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As marijuana companies seek laws more favorable to their industry, they are using the traditional tools of politics: hiring well-heeled lobbyists and donating money to politicians. Cannabis is big business in California, with sales expected to hit $3.7 billion by the end of the year, according to BDS Analytics. The industry’s spending on California politics soared in 2016, when voters made it legal for adults to use the drug.

“They want to be treated like every other business, and part of that is making campaign contributions so they can get access to politicians and have their voice heard,” said Jim Sutton, an attorney who represents cannabis businesses organizing political campaigns.

Cannabis companies, entrepreneurs and advocates spent at least $1.8 million to help pass the legalization measure in 2016. Since then, the industry has donated more than $600,000 to California political campaigns—more than four times as much as it spent on politics in the state during the 2013-14 election campaigns. Cannabis money is flowing to Democrats and Republicans running for re-election to the Legislature, as well as to Democratic candidates hoping to be elected governor and attorney general.

With the money comes a mainstream political presence for an industry quickly shedding its counterculture image.

At the California Democratic Party convention in February, the roster of receptions for delegates included one sponsored by Eaze, a company whose website allows people to order home delivery of marijuana. It was one of three…

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