Photo by Gabrielle Lurie

Champion for California Legalization Talks on Time in the Trenches

Photo by Gabrielle Lurie |

If termed-out California Assemblyman Tom Ammiano had his way, California would have beaten Colorado to the green party: Marijuana would be legal.

Elected to Assembly District 17, San Francisco, in 2008, Ammiano immediately pushed for legalization in Sacramento. But despite the lure of an estimated $500 million in potential tax revenue, other lawmakers weren’t interested. Ammiano tried again, and altered his legalization effort to medical marijuana regulation in several different forms from 2010 to 2014, all of which smoked on the vine. Now, as other California politicians pick up the torch for legalization, we asked Ammiano to reflect on his legacy.

SF Evergreen: So, let’s talk weed.
Tom Ammiano: Weed, weed, weed. People always ask, “Why are you doing marijuana?”

The marijuana issue comes organically from the AIDS crisis.

It was a very poignant time. AIDS came out of nowhere, and it was called the gay cancer. You lost a lot of people. Where’s Larry? He died last week.

My own partner of 18 years died of HIV complications. My partner was noxious, and we fed [marijuana] to him because he didn’t like to smoke. For the pressure in his eye, and helping his appetite.
So when I got to Sacramento the first thing I said was, I wanted a bill that would legalize marijuana and we’ll go from there.

The Next Tom

Several California lawmakers are 
already vying to be cannabis legalization’s next best friend in the Capitol.
See the boxes throughout the story for more lawmakers.
Rob Bonta, 
Assemblyman, Alameda
The East Bay assemblyman plans to pick up where Ammiano left off with a regulatory bill for the California medical cannabis industry. He introduced a blank placeholder bill in December, but the intent is to regulate. A smart move for the Yale-educated lawyer, whose district, which encompasses much of Alameda County, includes some of the state’s busiest cannabis dispensaries.

SFEG: And who were the toughest factions against the first bill?
TA: The speaker [Karen Bass, D-Los Angeles] was uncooperative. She said this wouldn’t make it past committee and this would put her members in a bad light, and I said (Ammiano makes a snoring sound).

And law enforcement, who have too much say in Sacramento [also killed legalization]. We’re hoping the extension of term limits will make that [influence] diminish. In my six years, I saw law enforcement go from very hostile to wanting to talk.

Republicans would say, “Oh yeah, tax the shit out of that.” So will you give me a vote? “Oh no!”

SFEG: So the police changed their minds on regulation?
TA: We went from fighting for legalization to fighting the US Attorney for Northern California, Melinda Haag, and the double messaging of the Obama administration. She was a very smart woman, but on this issue she was totally blind.

We asked, why don’t you frame for us the bill you’d like to see? She said no matter what, she’s not going to stop raiding.

By the end of my term, I had Republicans with me because they were hearing from rural counterparts in Modoc County that the cartels were ruining the water supplies and polluting the earth. Constituents were telling Republicans, “You better talk to that gay guy from San Francisco.”

Everyone was coming to 
Jesus, but it needed more political will. Jerry Brown hasn’t said shit about this except to be glib and patronizing.

Reggie Jones Sawyer, Assemblyman, Los Angeles
The situation in Los Angeles is a bit of a mess, with fly-by-night dispensaries operating in defiance of the local city attorney, who in turn is trying to use the courts to crack down on the industry. This is making it hard for operators who want to play by what rules there are. Jones Sawyer’s Assembly Bill 26 carries forward Ammiano’s failed bill from last year, and would create statewide rules for the first time.

SFEG: Let’s drill down on that. What are the statewide consequences of not having regulated cannabis?
TA: It lets the dark side move in. Some are looking through a patient lens, and some are looking at profit, profit, profit. There’s no quality control, people can take your money and run. Then it allows cartels come in, which are really dangerous.

We got a lot of African American support after years of them being hesitant. NAACP’s head, Alice Huffman, said to me, it wasn’t because they want kids to smoke dope, but they’re supporting this because they don’t want their kids sent to jail. It’s tied to sentencing reform.

SFEG: Do you feel the political climate around legalization is changing in Sacramento?
TA: The police are cooling off. But it’s nothing like we’re seeing in other states.

SFEG: You pushed things far though.
TA: Yeah, but you can imagine I’m still frustrated.

Bill Quirk, 
Assemblyman, Hayward
You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know that cannabis legalization is a good thing. As it happens, the Hayward assemblyman is an astrophysicist — close enough — and is fully behind marijuana legalization, he told the East Bay Express. He’s also honest: Regulations are still not guaranteed, and California’s lawmakers have proven “very conservative” on pot, he told the paper.

SFEG: If you look back at your efforts, would you have done something different?
TA: I have no control over this, but it’s the term limits. I figure don’t be wimpy. But it’s how others view you. I was in my last year in office. People knew that. If only I could have had one more year.

SFEG: So you were on your way out, and people dismissed you?
TA: Yeah, and now powerful lobbyists are interested because they know they can make money. Now we have the focus of people who are very entrepreneurial and see the gold in them there hills.

We’re going to see movement with marijuana, but controlled by who? That’s why what Colorado did is great; it’s taking things out of the grubby hands of corporate interests.

SFEG: Do you see Assembly members who didn’t vote with you flipping as well?
TA: Yes, yes I do, especially some of the moderate Democrats. It’ll be in their interest [to regulate marijuana], maybe not for nobility, but for politics. I always felt what would happen is, we would be in the trenches. The activists mix it in, we prevail, and in the end someone else champion’s our ideas and takes all the credit.

Maybe it’ll be [Lt. Gov. Gavin] Newsom. You know Newsom likes all my ideas. [Marijuana] is the new flavor.