Unlikely allies

Two legislators, both formerly opposing marijuana, may be able to aid California’s underperforming commercial pot industry

Assemblymen Jim Cooper (D-Elk Grove, left) and Tom Lackey (R-Palmdale) recently introduced bills to lower marijuana sales taxes and combat the illegal market.

Assemblymen Jim Cooper (D-Elk Grove, left) and Tom Lackey (R-Palmdale) recently introduced bills to lower marijuana sales taxes and combat the illegal market.

Photos courtesy of Assemblymember Jim Cooper District 9/Lackey for Assembly 2018

Brad Branan was previously the cannabis reporter at The Sacramento Bee. He has been a journalist for 27 years and won many awards, including for best investigative reporting in California.

The best opportunity to help California’s struggling commercial cannabis industry may lie with two state lawmakers who opposed marijuana when they worked in law enforcement.

The need for change was highlighted this month when the state released revenue figures for the first three months of the year, the opening weeks of California’s commercial marijuana market. The state collected $32 million in cannabis excise taxes, which indicates revenues are less than half of what was expected.

Californians aren’t smoking less weed, industry leaders say. They’re just not buying it from legal retailers because of high taxes and local government bans that block sales.

Legal dispensaries are competing with hundreds of unlicensed operators across the state, many of which advertise on websites like weedmaps.com and don’t collect taxes, at least not all of them.

Enter two unlikely allies: Assemblymen Tom Lackey, R-Palmdale, and Jim Cooper, D-Elk Grove. Lackey worked for the California Highway Patrol for 28 years and was once named “Legislator of Year” by the California Police Chiefs Association.

Cooper worked for the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department for 30 years, including an extended run in drug interdiction. His capitol office is filled with pictures of him as a narc, standing in front of seized drugs and wearing undercover disguises.

Yet Lackey and Cooper are now sponsoring legislation supported by the cannabis industry. Lackey wants to temporarily reduce taxes on cannabis, while Cooper is taking aim at black-market sales.

“I’m not a natural ally,” Lackey said.

Cooper and Lackey’s transformation reflect changing attitudes across the country at a time when a majority of states have some form of marijuana legalization, and people like former U.S. House Speaker John Boehner have gone from being prohibitionists to profiteers.

Both Cooper and Lackey say their attitudes changed as they saw sick people become better with medical cannabis. Lackey said the wife of his former law-enforcement partner started using cannabis to treat the symptoms of cancer.

The assemblymen said that support of legal cannabis is pro-law-enforcement. Voters in 2016 approved Proposition 64, which legalized cannabis, and so the assemblymen say they have a duty to make the law work.

Lackey said his proposed tax reduction is essential for loosening the chokehold unlicensed retailers have on cannabis sales. The state places a 15-percent excise tax on cannabis, in addition to a cultivation tax based on weight. Local government adds taxes, too, creating overall rates as high as 45 percent, according to an industry group.

Cooper is also taking aim at the black market. He has proposed creating a task force that would study the illegal market with an eye toward promoting the legal market. While the bill has received support in committee, it could die because of a separate proposal recently announced by Gov. Jerry Brown to create an enforcement unit in the Department of Justice.

Cooper has also introduced a bill that would make it a $10,000 fine for unlicensed operators to advertise on Weedmaps and other websites. The state has asked Weedmaps to stop allowing such ads, but the company has responded that it is not subject to state licensing laws.

Weedmaps has also argued that the greater problem is local control, which has led 85 percent of local governments to ban commercial cannabis sales. A bill pending in the Senate would ease the restrictions by allowing cannabis delivery companies to bring marijuana anywhere, regardless of local restrictions. While the bill has industry support, it faces opposition from the California League of Cities, the California State Association of Counties and law-enforcement groups.