California marijuana leaders increasingly uniting behind one legalization measure

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Late last month, it looked as though California might very well have two recreational cannabis legalization measures on the ballot next fall.

But the situation is changing rapidly, and the odds are now much higher that there will be just one initiative – which is seen as key to pushing through legalization.

In the past two weeks, a growing number of advocates, industry leaders and legalization supporters have started to gravitate toward a measure backed by billionaire Sean Parker, while the other major legalization campaign – ReformCA – has lost some key supporters.

Insiders say stakeholders are working to come up with an initiative everyone can unite behind, and it increasingly seems like it will be Parker’s measure.

On Tuesday, the Parker campaign – which doesn’t yet have a name but has been dubbed the Adult Use Marijuana Act (AUMA) – revealed that six board members of the organization behind ReformCA have jumped ship. These influential individuals are now throwing their support behind the AUMA.

One of them is Oaksterdam University founder Richard Lee, who publicly endorsed Parker’s initiative just before Thanksgiving.

That was a major coup for the AUMA, in large part because Lee founded Oaksterdam University, which the head of ReformCA – Dale Sky Jones – now leads.

Jones could not be reached for comment Wednesday, but in an email to supporters Thursday morning, she almost sounded as though she’s ready to throw in the towel. She made no mention of signature gathering to make the ballot, even though ReformCA’s measure was officially cleared for petition circulation on Wednesday by the state.

Jones did say she expects a discussion at a ReformCA stakeholder meeting on Dec. 18 with regard to the organization’s official stance on the AUMA (which suggests that the campaign may fold and join Parker’s coalition). She also wrote that she is considering adopting a “watchdog” role for ReformCA for the future, with regard to the implementation of both MMJ rules and possibly new rec industry rules.

The other individuals who defected from ReformCA include Nate Bradley, the executive director of the California Cannabis Industry Association; Stacia Cosner, the deputy director of Students for Sensible Drug Policy; Neill Franklin, the executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition; Antonio Gonzalez, the president of the William C. Velasquez Institute; and David Bronner, the CEO of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps.

They join other big names who have signed on to support Parker’s campaign, including California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, the Drug Policy Alliance and the Marijuana Policy Project.

Bradley said the reason he and the industry association have decided to back Parker’s measure over ReformCA is multifold.

For one, he said, Parker’s group is working with a more diverse coalition of stakeholders – including those in law enforcement and health care – not just those in the marijuana sector.

Secondly, the AUMA may have deeper pockets to draw from, Bradley said. It will take a lot of money to pay signature gatherers and professional campaign operatives to take rec all the way to the electoral goal line next November. And Parker has already pledged to support his campaign with millions of dollars of his own cash if need be.

“It was a matter of viability, is the initiative workable, does it have the resources to get it done?” Bradley said. “You only get one shot, and it’s a gamble, and everybody has to make what they think is the safest bet.”

There aren’t a ton of substantial differences between the two initiatives at this point.

The ReformCA measure is arguably less comprehensive than the AUMA, weighing in at 26 pages of new laws and regulations, in contrast to 64 pages for Parker’s measure.

Some of the bigger differences between the two:

  • The ReformCA camp is more concerned with protecting community businesses and guarding against monopolies, while the AUMA is more friendly to larger companies. For example, an updated version of the AUMA allows for no cap on the size of commercial grows after five years, while ReformCA explicitly directs a new state agency to limit the number of licenses a company can hold to “discourage monopolization.”
  • On marijuana taxes, ReformCA would implement a $2 per-square-foot of canopy tax for growers, a production tax of $15 per ounce of flower, a sales tax of 5% for flower and a 10% tax for edibles and concentrates. The AUMA would establish a $9.25 cultivation tax per ounce for flower and a 15% sales tax.
  • ReformCA only calls for “reasonable controls” on advertisement to be established to protect children. The AUMA calls for tighter advertising regulations. It would prohibit free promotional samples, as well as marijuana advertising within 1,000 feet of schools and other areas where children congregate. Ads on TV, radio or the internet could only be used where “at least 71.6% of the audience is reasonably expected to be 21 years of age or older.”
  • Under ReformCA’s bill, there would be 10 types of business licenses, ranging from cultivation to manufacturing to transportation. Under the AUMA, there would be a whopping 19, with 13 for various types of cultivators alone.

Bradley contends that the AUMA also does a better job of building on top of the new statewide medical marijuana regulations that the legislature approved in September, a trio of bills known as the Medical Marijuana Regulation and Safety Act.

“It recognizes (the act) and builds off it, and doesn’t create a whole new agency,” Bradley said.

ReformCA’s initiative would create a new bureaucracy called the Office of Cannabis Regulation, to be housed within the Department of Consumer Affairs, while the AUMA would set up a Bureau of Marijuana Control, essentially renaming the Bureau of Medical Marijuana Regulation that the legislature established this year.

Parker’s campaign appears to be aiming for a compromise.

An updated version of the AUMA was filed the first week of December with the state, after the Parker camp reportedly made several concessions to ReformCA backers.

The revised measure includes a number of consumer-related provisions, such as increasing the legal limit of concentrate possession from four grams to eight, but also a few key business features. The new draft, for example, adds further protections for small businesses, such as permanently banning large-scale cultivators from also having distributor licenses.

And in the Thursday email to supporters, ReformCA’s Jones credited her team “for fighting to attain good public policy amendments in the recent negotiations with the Parker Group.”

ReformCA board member Hezekiah Allen said in an email to Marijuana Business Daily that he is hopeful that the two camps can reach a consensus, but hinted that there’s still more negotiating that needs to take place before that can happen.

“To be successful, we need unity,” Allen wrote. “To achieve that goal, we need a unity conversation.”

A lot of well-known cannabis executives and advocates in the state are hoping that’s exactly what happens, especially in light of the failed 2010 adult-use legalization campaign in the state.

“I certainly hope the two sides can come together and reconcile their differences, because I believe victory depends on it, and we can’t afford to lose California again,” said Steve DeAngelo, executive director of Harborside Health Center. “Unity is going to be the most important factor in winning this race.”

John Schroyer can be contacted at