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Andrew Russell wants a minute of your time: Golden State Government Relations and the California cannabis lobby

Oct 8, 2018

In a recent blog post, Golden State Government Relations explained to their readers the differences between marijuana and hemp — a difference they noted which is as much legal as it is scientific. And while the bulk of the cannabis community is astutely aware that THC levels are what carry the weight for this definition, with hemp having no more than 0.3 percent THC by volume, politicians and lawmakers and the policymakers that control the details of the day-to-day are woefully inept when it comes to these intricacies.  

There’s a reason, after all, the constitution allows the people to petition the government for a redress of their grievances. If not, it’s quite apparent that the men and women who legislate everyone’s daily lives would continue to confuse such simple things as hemp and marijuana.

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Enter Andrew Russell, a Legislative Advocate for Golden State Government Relations, a lobbying firm in Sacramento, California. GSGR is dedicated to advocacy in several different policy areas, including cannabis, cannabis tourism, and land-use planning.

Proud members of groups such as the California Farm Bureau Federation, the Santa Rosa Metro Chamber, the California Cannabis Industry Association, and the Certified Tourism Ambassador organization, GSGR is the bridge between the people and their politicians. Not only can they redress these grievances, but they know how to do it.

An employee of the firm since it opened in January 2018, Andy’s background is in strategic policy consulting and legislative advocacy. In his words, he has a “plethora” of experience building grassroots coalitions between governments (both state and local agencies) and constituency groups. We spoke with Andy about the work he does with cannabis, to find out what it means to lobby for such a new industry — and to see if we couldn’t redress a few grievances of our own.

Andrew Russell

Let’s talk about your background a little. How did you come to work at Golden State Government Relations?

So, I’ve been working in and around politics in Sacramento for, well, it feels like forever! But really I’ve been working in legislative advocacy since I got my graduate’s degree and decided I wanted to advocate on a “higher” level. How it started specifically here, at GSGR? Well, in Sacramento there are lots of opportunities to show your work product, and show how you advocate for policies. I must have impressed the right person or the right group of people because I was suggested by a contact to another contact who worked with GSGR. I was interviewed and happily found that the firm lined up with my knowledge base and my personal interests. I got to help start GSGR, and it’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I’m very happy to work for a firm that is on the cutting edge of new policies and a new industry in general.

And talk about your role at GSGR. What are some of the policy areas that you focus on specifically?

Land-use policy is one of [GSGR’s] main issues. We navigate the entitlement process for clients looking to start a new business, getting through those zoning restrictions and regulations while having concern for environmental regulations and the sustainability of a project. I deal with the tourism aspect of the cannabis industry. The California Cannabis Tourism Association is one of our organizations. We have all of the major tour operators, major cannabis companies, growers, retailers, any part of the industry that deals with tourists. We try to make sure that tourists that come to California who want to participate in the cannabis industry, smoke or whatever, that they have a great time in California.

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So many things that have happened in California have laid the groundwork for California being the epicenter of a cannabis event. We’re one of the major pioneers in regulating cannabis. These new laws are going to have an effect, lots of states will look to us to see how we implemented this program. We are such a large state with a diverse culture and a complicated political system. If we can do it in California, it should be much easier for a state with a smaller population to tackle, politically. Honestly, right now, it’s hard to work on any political issue and not deal with cannabis in some way. It’s new in terms of legalization; it’s a new and growing industry that touches so many different industries that the issues that I work on require working with everyone in the political spectrum.

Cannabis tourism sounds fascinating! How does a lobbying firm help with the cannabis tourism industry?

One of the main issues with tourism in California is consumption. We’ve legalized sales of it, and we’ve legalized private use. But if you’re a tourist, it’s hard to find a private place to use cannabis. On the optimistic side, we’ve seen consumption lounges open in San Francisco, being the first of their kind in the U.S. It’s something that we as Californians can be and are proud of, but we want to see it expanded. We see it with so many other industries in California that have public consumption rules, like wine, for instance. We don’t think cannabis should be treated differently. We’ve legalized the sale, transport and so many manufacturing rules such as cultivation. We haven’t legalized public space for consumption. And that’s one of the things about this industry is that we’re trying to connect it with logic, making the rules logical.

We don’t want it to be set up on a system like Vermont where it’s legal to possess and to buy [cannabis], but it’s not legal to sell in Vermont. That doesn’t make sense, and it’s not logical. If you can buy it and own it, then you should be able to sell it. Trying to connect these laws to what actually happens on a street level, making it, so these laws actually work, that’s half the battle. You can pass a law, but if you can’t implement it, then that’s almost worse.

What are some of the specific areas you focus on regarding cannabis tourism? In other words, what’s your day-to-day like?

Events are one of the main things that GSGR focuses on as a group. We want to make it easier to grow an event, to attend, to sell cannabis at a cannabis event, consume at a cannabis event. Actually, we just got great news from the Governor’s office (Gov. Jerry Brown). He signed AB 2020 (Quirk), which we supported. It would allow local jurisdictions to have a space other than a county fairground for cannabis events. Before this law was signed, there were only four fairgrounds in the state which were allowed to hold cannabis events. This is really unique to California and could stand to bring in millions of dollars in local revenue. Cannabis events have been going on for a while in California, and so our association is dedicated to supporting these types of events. They have such a strong cultural heritage, especially with our state’s safe haven attitude, this will allow people to come together and collaborate and enjoy cannabis. We want to work to expand these types of events in every way that we can expand these events.

There’s been a lot of confusion in California concerning CBD, what’s allowed and what’s not allowed. Your firm has even interviewed Dr. Jonathon Vaught, the CEO and founder of Front Range Biosciences for their blog space. Is your firm tackling CBD as a policy area?

Not tackling, supporting! Anyone in the cannabis industry knows the benefits of using CBD. Not only for medicinal reasons, but also for destigmatizing the cannabis industry. If the State knew the benefits of CBD oil, there wouldn’t be any grounds to ban its use. I see CBD oil as life-saving. Especially for people with rare medical disorders, rare forms of Epilepsy, there’s no other forms of treatment for some of these people except for CBD oil. I think it’s a great thing for our entire society and I think it can help demystify cannabis. We have something that you can use recreationally, and then use the other part [of the cannabis plant] that actually works for patients. The entire industry, it’s something that we’ll fight for, this is just as important as cannabis. You never want to have favorites in terms of what you advocate for, but it’s one of mine.

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The California Department of Public Health, they issued a memo earlier this summer saying that CBD oil derived from hemp is not allowed, but the other types of CBD oil are allowable. The regulations for growing hemp in California, the rulemaking process for growing hemp is just now starting, and we’re a part of that.

It must be tough, lobbying for the cannabis industry, especially considering the all of the political and even moral issues that people place upon it. In general, what’s it like and what’s the hardest part about your job?

That’s a great question. It’s one more thing where [in] the bubble of California politics, you tend not to think about it. You just think about the markets and industries in your state; then you start to realize that you live in this greater context of America. The Governor will veto anything he doesn’t agree with, like the banking bill. We tried to create a banking solution for cannabis businesses that don’t want to operate only in cash, one of the main reasons being safety. We helped develop SB 930 (Hertzberg), and we worked with [Fiona Ma, Chair of the California State Board of Equalization], who’s absolutely amazing and is running for State Treasurer.

We tried to develop California charter cannabis banks, and [the bill] was well thought out. But it couldn’t hold up against the argument that it’s not in line with the federal government’s current stance. There are so many issues that end up like this. For some reason, cannabis just isn’t part of their political agenda. Seventy-five percent of places in California, you still can’t buy cannabis. It’s the federal legality of it. So for those people, they view it as a nefarious illegal commodity. Battling against that is tough! As a lobbyist for cannabis, you want people to open up their minds and to see through other people’s POV, your biggest desire is for your political opponent to smoke some cannabis with you and open their minds! It’s a conundrum.

Have you noticed a difference in politicians’ attitudes, their staffers’ attitudes towards your lobbying efforts since recreational cannabis became legalized in California?

There aren’t many staffers working in the capital that what they’re working on hasn’t touched on cannabis. That’s something that’s changed in the last year or two in Sacramento. Before, they used to say that cannabis doesn’t touch on their issue-area. Now, people are much more open. It’s easier to secure meetings with people. It is a new industry, and there are so many new opportunities. A lot of staffers want to work on cannabis issues. Also, since it’s a new industry, there are so many needed legislative fixes. Opportunities for work are there. There may be an element of popularity, but there are opportunities for [legislative] work and being able to be a part of creating the rules and regulations for an industry that has been around and will be around, so it’s exciting!

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Conversations that weren’t happening two or three years ago are happening now. Especially in terms of Republican [members’] staff. We’re seeing more Republicans being willing to meet with us. California Republicans are more directly affected by the issue, but that’s just one thing that I’ve seen is the willingness of politicians. Especially from the people that hadn’t previously had exposure, now that it’s legal, it’s ok to talk about it. There’s more people reporting on issues, talking about the issues. It’s a more saturated market for knowledge, there’s more people talking about it, and there’s excitement bubbling.

What legislative issues are you hoping that the cannabis industry will tackle in California next year?

The major upcoming legislative fight in this industry will be settled in the courts, in my opinion. There was a bill going through the legislature that would legalize delivery in all jurisdictions regardless of city-bans, that the state felt was not what voters voted for when cannabis was legalized. After the bill died, some new regulations came up. It was important that delivery issues were addressed in the regulations. The California League of Cities and the Police Chief are taking the [Bureau of Cannabis Control] to court over delivering cannabis in banned-areas.

It’s hard to address future laws, but I would actually like to see the state withhold money from banned jurisdictions. Those cities shouldn’t benefit from the tax money received from commercial revenue. I would like municipalities to be encouraged to lift bans. I would also like to see laws regarding cannabis consumption lounges. It’s important to the tourism industry. It would be something different and something unique to California. It would show how metropolitan we are. Also, the Civil Rights Act as it relates to cannabis. We need to keep the federal government from restricting personal rights. Whether it’s owning a firearm, which I could care less about, or living where you want to live, what I care about is the right. There are so many other issues where cannabis touches on Civil Rights. Now that we’ve said, as a state, that it’s legal, it is such a contradiction to remove a person’s civil rights because they use cannabis.

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