Could the Pot Lobby Finally Show Its Strength in CA Politics?

A businessman with interests in San Francisco, including a storefront retail location on Mission Street, is lately one of the country's most-talked about politicians. But despite a recent profile in The New York Times, Robert Jacob is virtually unknown in town.

This is because Jacob is the mayor of Sebastopol, a small town in Sonoma County, and because he deals in marijuana.

Young and affable, intelligent and self-made, Jacob is a perfect pitchman for the modern-day marijuana movement, and is respected and well-known in Sonoma County. But he won't likely be invited to Chamber of Commerce lunches in San Francisco, or rub elbows with Mayor Ed Lee at election parties.

That is not how one does marijuana business in the city.

It wasn't long ago that marijuana dispensaries advertised on city buses and tried to buy billboards on Interstate-280. That was before the United States Attorney shut down almost half of the permitted dispensaries in town. Cannabis businesses are quiet now, preferring not to kick up dust lest they be next.

To describe cannabis traders as a closeted bunch might seem offensive — a disservice to the gay men and AIDS victims to whom the modern legalization movement owes an irredeemable debt of gratitude. But it also has a nugget of truth. In this business, discretion is not only a virtue, it's a means of self-preservation.

Things might be different if the city's business establishment needed weed like it does in Oakland and Berkeley, where mayors and city attorneys file lawsuits and challenge the Obama administration on behalf of legal weed. San Francisco does not do these things, and with corporate titans like PG&E, AT&T, and now Twitter and Salesforce wielding clout pot growers could only dream of, it may never start.

There are businessmen close to the city's political establishment dealing in cannabis — such as Gus Murad, the former Mission District restaurateur, who hosted fundraisers for a generation of political power players in the building where he now sells weed. But to date, cannabis has not made itself known as a serious force in City Hall.

Weed people have had an uneasy time fitting into the local political scene. There have been slick fundraisers: an evening of catered French food and a speech from a former Board of Supervisors president before the room filled with smoke to the tune of Ben Harper's “Burn One Down.” More prevalent, though, are stories like the time pro-pot volunteers were asked by Chris Daly campaign staffers not to roll joints at their phone-banking desks.

Weed is expendable — you can win without it, so why bother with it? And even here, it can be a liability. But to taste some political power, cannabis might not need to win at City Hall. It might be able to skip the local dome and go straight to Sacramento. For the state Legislature is soon losing its Lion of Judah: Tom Ammiano, the most-marijuana friendly legislator in California, will be termed out in a year's time.

The former challenger to Willie Brown for mayor and ex-Board of Supervisors president doesn't consider marijuana reform his signature issue, but his biographers may differ. Within weeks of landing in Sacramento in 2009, he proposed an outright legalization initiative, and has tried to change California's approach to cannabis every year since.

These efforts have gone nowhere aside from the headlines, but they have set a tone. This is Ammiano's last year before he's termed out, and his last chance for a big move.

It's also a perfect chance for political hopefuls with drug-reform leanings. One of two very similar men will replace Ammiano in Sacramento. The next Assemblyman will be a Harvard-educated non-white man who sits on the Board of Supervisors. To find their differences, one goes to the surface — Board president David Chiu is Chinese-American and straight, and David Campos is Latino and, like Ammiano, openly gay — and to the grittiest of details to find slight deviations on tenant-friendly land use, universal health care, and immigration reform.

Political observers will scoff, and large donations from real estate and technology will dwarf any campaign cash cannabis providers dare to show. But in a close race, drug reform-minded voters and volunteers could provide the edge in what will be the major political battle in San Francisco in 2014.

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