Cannabis Activist: AUMA Initiative Is ‘Big-Business-Friendly’

When Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom came to Garberville last June to gather input about what a statewide initiative legalizing marijuana should look like, he made a pledge to the standing-room-only crowd that had gathered at the Redwood Playhouse.

After a grower said, “We don’t want to see our livelihoods stolen from us,” Newsom got a standing ovation when he responded: “We can’t let that happen. We can’t write rules and regulations and write you guys out.”

Nine months later, a prominent marijuana advocate has concerns that the little guy — meaning, at least in part, the small cannabis farmers that are so numerous in Southern Humboldt — is in danger of being written out.

At issue is the Adult Use of Marijuana Act, or AUMA, a legalization initiative endorsed by Newsom that has the financial backing of Silicon Valley billionaire Sean Parker.

Hezekiah Allen, executive director of the California Growers Association, said last week that when it comes to getting a legalization initiative on the ballot this November, at this point it’s AUMA or nothing.

“There is absolutely not another initiative that has a likelihood of winning. AUMA is the only one with the money to do it,” Allen said flatly.

Which would be fine except AUMA, in Allen’s view as well as in the view of some other cannabis advocates, has a few red flags attached to it.

Representatives of pro-pot groups such as NORML and ReformCA have complained that the initiative hasn’t gone far enough to ensure pot smokers’ liberties.

Allen did not disagree. “AUMA could have done a better job” on the criminal front, he commented.

There could have been “a more aggressive push on having prior convictions expunged or [on] some type of relief for folks convicted of cannabis crimes,” he allowed.

But in last week’s interview it was clear that Allen is more bothered by something else about AUMA: It does not do enough to protect small growers.

“It’s decidedly more big-business-friendly than the MMRSA,” he said, referring to the Medical Marijuana Regulation and Safety Act, a statewide regulatory and licensing program that was signed into law last fall and took effect Jan. 1.

A second problem with AUMA is that at 62 pages long, the initiative is on the lengthy, complicated side.

“It’s not a good thing to put to voters [long and involved initiatives]. Initiatives should be short and streamlined,” Allen said.

AUMA’s length also means that reviewing drafts to assess its legality and workability is a daunting prospect. “There’s a lot there. It’s a lot of code for the regulatory community to thumb through,” Allen added.

A third concern is that AUMA is an initiative, not a piece of legislation.

“An initiative doesn’t allow for back and forth. There is no deliberative process. It’s all or nothing.”

“Initiatives are known for being blunt objects. And this is a 62-page blunt object,” Allen added.

That said, AUMA’s drafters did agree — under pressure — to include language that promises to increase its adaptability.

“Initiatives can only be amended by a future vote unless the drafters say the legislative body has that authority,” Allen explained. “And they did that. They did give legislators broad authority to modify and amend the initiative later.”

That concession was reached through “tense and bitter” negotiations, as Allen put it, that took place over the winter. The negotiations did not involve anyone from CGA. Instead, they involved four AUMA drafters and four members of ReformCA, a coalition of legalization supporters that initially had the most well-organized initiative effort.

Earlier this year a majority of its board members voted to suspend the ReformCA initiative. But there have been conflicting accounts about whether the organization — CGA has a seat on its board — has endorsed AUMA.

As for CGA’s position on the Parker Initiative, as AUMA is also known, Allen said the group for the time being has adopted a neutral stance.

“If it qualifies for the ballot, that will change the dynamics,” he said.

The signature-gathering deadline to get an initiative on the November ballot is in late June. If AUMA does make it onto the ballot, “at that point we’ll reconsider. We’ll talk to the members and make a recommendation that reflects the collective feeling.” At the moment, Allen disclosed, CGA’s 25-member board is currently divided on whether or not to support AUMA.

While CGA is a statewide organization, a substantial portion of its membership — which includes cultivators, manufacturers and retailers — hails from Humboldt and Mendocino counties. Of its 482 members, 110 are from Humboldt and 90 are from Mendocino.

“Our membership [includes] the smaller, independently owned, value-added operations. We want a marketplace for those types of businesses,” Allen explained.

A big reason that AUMA, as it’s currently written, poses a threat to small growers has to do with vertical integration — in other words, the dominance of one company over the supply chain.

“If Anheuser-Busch owned BevMo! there would be no microbrews,” was the way Allen described vertical integration.

Unlike the MMRSA, AUMA, according to Allen, doesn’t prevent vertical integration, or “market capture,” of the cannabis industry by a few big actors.

“MMRSA is built on a three-tiered model where there is independent distribution. AUMA makes that voluntary,” he said.

A second issue — cultivation size limits — has apparently been resolved, or at least postponed. While Allen said initial drafts of AUMA created a license category that contained “no limits” on cultivation size, that has since been changed.

“The AUMA marketplace will be consistent with the MMRSA” marketplace, he said, adding that after a set period the State Legislature could revisit the issue.

“If there’s no shortage of supply, you don’t need mega-grows,” Allen remarked.

Backing off on a license without size limits “got us to neutral” in terms of CGA’s position on AUMA, Allen shared.

“I expect we would have been formally opposed if that concession hadn’t been made. We would have been looking at 2,000-acre ranches in the San Joaquin [Valley].”

Asked who’s been involved in drafting AUMA, Allen pointed to reform groups such as the Drug Policy Alliance and the Marijuana Policy Project. He also said that some members of Newsom’s Blue Ribbon Commission, which last summer came out with a report on marijuana legalization, were also involved.

“There’s been a handful of political action committees and larger contributors influencing the process that we know less about. It hasn’t been a transparent process,” he said, adding that no one from CGA was invited to participate.

Speaking of Newsom’s Blue Ribbon Report, it was strongly applauded by local cannabis advocates when it came out, Allen included.

Dubbed “Pathways Report: Policy Options for Regulating Marijuana in California,” the document — which was expected to play a major role in influencing the initiative drafting process — laid out 58 recommendations for what a post-legalization landscape should and should not look like.

Last week, Allen noted that the report made clear that protecting small farmers and associated businesses was a priority. “The report said explicitly that it would be wise and appropriate to limit the size of any single entity in the marketplace and that it would be appropriate to [disrupt] vertical integration to prevent market capture and control.”

“And for [Newsom] to support an initiative that does exactly the opposite is surprising,” Allen said.

“He walked away from that meeting [at the Redwood Playhouse last June] with a real understanding of the issues [that were important to local growers.] It’s surprising that he’s putting his support behind [AUMA] without vetting the Blue Ribbon Commission.”

As for Parker, Allen — who hasn’t spoken to him but has talked to people who have — speculated that “he’s not paying attention to the details” in terms of the drafting of AUMA.

“He believes in legalization and that it needs to happen in California in 2016. I believe he’s [providing his money] for all the right reasons. I don’t believe he has a financial interest at stake. He’s not trying to get into the business. [Instead], I think he seriously believes in [legalization] as a social reform issue.”