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Meet the Main Man Fighting Against California’s Prop. 64

SACRAMENTO — The leading advocates for Proposition 64, the California initiative that would legalize and regulate the adult use of cannabis, are well known: Gavin Newsom, the dashing lieutenant governor; Sean Parker, the tech startup billionaire; and Jay Z, musician and general mogul.

But who’s fighting it?

That would be John Lovell.

Lovell is a longtime law enforcement lobbyist who’s emerged as one of the leading voices against legalization in the nation’s largest state.

“This ballot measure’s all about the gold rush,” Lovell says from his small office across the street from the state Capitol. “It’s not about, ‘Gee, I want to be left alone, I want to be able to smoke my marijuana, I want to be able to buy a little bit from some place.’ No. This is about a big business model.”

After early work in government relations for DuPont and E. & J. Gallo Winery, Lovell launched his own Sacramento lobbying practice in the early 1990s “and almost immediately picked up a whole list of law enforcement clients.” He now represents, as lobbyist or adviser, the California Narcotics Officers’ Association, the California Correctional Supervisors Organization, the California Police Chiefs Association, and the Association of Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs, among others. “I think virtually every one,” he says, “has come out against Proposition 64.”

Lovell says he’s concerned that the initiative could potentially support the rise of Big Pot by allowing businesses to hold multiple types of licenses—grower, extractor, retailer, and so on. He also worries the proposition doesn’t go far enough to control the potency of the various products, won’t be sufficient to prevent impaired-driving fatalities, and leaves the door open for individuals with past drug convictions to receive business licenses.

The measure’s proponents counter that limits on large-scale grows for the first five years after legalization would help give small businesses a leg up. They point to a planned $3 million for California Highway Patrol to develop protocols to detect and deter impaired driving. And they say the possibility of licensing individuals with past drug convictions is a social-justice feature, not a bug, meant to bring people into the legal market and undo the racially-tinged ravages of the drug war.

His arguments, he says, are based in part on a public health report by tobacco researchers at the University of California San Francisco. It raises a number of policy questions around legalization, concluding that the state ought to “proactively create sensible and necessary regulations, oversight, and enforcement, related to the production, sale, taxation, and marketing of retail marijuana.” In other words, the report says the state should legalize—but legalize carefully.

“He’s been a key ally in public safety issues.”

That’s something, Lovell says, that Prop. 64 fails to do. He contends that the entirety of the proposition was designed primarily for profit rather than public safety, by people with an interest in what’s expected to be an enormous cannabis economy.

“Every initiative is drafted by groups of like-minded people who have a particular agenda,” he says. “It seems that there’s no one in the room who has passed a critical eye on what it is that we’re doing. What are the unintended consequences?”

A Place in the Conversation

Lovell has often been involved in policy conversations around cannabis. He worked against Proposition 19, a 2010 voter initiative that would have legalized marijuana for adults, because he felt it didn’t do enough to prevent the dangers of having a mind-altering substance on the legal market. But he’s also worked constructively on marijuana legislation such as last year’s Medical Cannabis Regulation and Safety Act, or MCRSA, a set of bills passed in 2015 that will establish a statewide licensing system for medical cannabis businesses, create environmental and product testing standards, and allow counties to impose taxes on cannabis businesses.

Lauren Michaels, the legislative affairs manager for the California Police Chiefs, worked with Lovell on MCRSA. What makes him good at what he does, she says, is that he’s a “true believer” who has the knowledge and perspective to see how proposed laws fit into larger conversation. “He’s one of the few people around the capital that can give a historical context,” she says. “In that way he’s been a key ally in public safety issues.”

Lovell’s small office is cluttered with books—volumes about Vietnam, Moscow, one called Steroids 101—and hung with photographs, mostly of family. But also on the wall are pictures of a man Lovell’s never known, the victim of a Los Angeles mass murder.

The slayings happened in 1957. Three men were thrown out of a bar. They returned with a five-gallon can of gasoline, which they threw into the bar and ignited. Six people were killed.

on Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2016, in Sacramento, Calif.

Lovell remembers reading about the event in the newspaper as a precocious 10 year old. He was so disturbed, his father suggested he stay away from papers for a while. Years later, when Lovell met the woman who would become his wife, he learned her uncle and uncle’s cousin were two of the victims.

He admits he’s not entirely sure why the story of men he never knew, who died 50 years ago, resonates so strongly with him. It could be how he was raised, he ventures, as the child of progressives. “Representing law enforcement on behalf of victims is in the tradition of my perception of what the party of my birth has always been about,” he says. “Intervening on behalf of people in dire straits, whether those dire straits are economic, whether they’re outright poverty, whether they are victims of racial, gender, sexual-orientation discrimination—or, in my view, victims of crime.”

When it comes to marijuana policy, the question of who the victims are occupies a lot of minds in California these days. Proponents of Prop. 64 say they want to stop creating new victims of America’s failed war on drugs. Lovell sees it differently. He believes Prop. 64 will produce new victims: casualties of impaired driving, minors enticed by cannabis advertising, and just about anyone who gets in the way of a booming industry.

Lovell worries that Prop. 64 would create one more Big to join the other Bigs: Tobacco, Alcohol, Pharmaceuticals, Agriculture. Huge companies could eventually push out small operators. And those same massive players, he warns, could also wield the political influence to prevent regulatory revisions down the road.

Under Prop. 64, large-scale cultivation licenses couldn’t be granted under until 2023. But because the measure generally doesn’t limit how many licenses a potential operator can obtain, a single company could control almost every step in the supply chain, from planting the seeds to sealing the packages to selling the products in stores (a third-party laboratory would need to test the products for potency and pesticides). The vertically integrated model is one that Colorado originally adopted for its regulated medical marijuana system. It was seen by state officials as a way to assure regulatory compliance. Washington state’s law, by contrast, bars vertical integration.

Another key plank of Lovell’s anti-64 platform is that the proposition doesn’t include an all-out ban on advertising to children—a point that has been debated and litigated. The text of the law explicitly prohibits marketing to people under 21 or near schools and forbids marijuana products that could be mistaken for candy. There are strictures against advertising and sales near schools and requirements that sellers verify age, as well as requirements for product labeling and marketing that don’t currently exist.

But, Lovell says, that doesn’t mean ads would necessarily be out of the question. A provision of the measure says they can only be displayed “where at least 71.6 percent of the audience is reasonably expected to be 21 years of age or older,” a rule adopted from an alcohol-industry guideline. Meanwhile, marijuana-product websites would require that visitors verify their age, which as anyone who’s used the internet knows is a pretty simple workaround.

Who’s a victim?

For many, marijuana legalization is a social justice question. Lovell isn’t in favor of criminalization. “Do I smoke marijuana myself? No,” he says. “Do I feel that someone who uses marijuana should be incarcerated? No.” He points out that marijuana possession in California has been mostly decriminalized since 2011, with possession of up to an ounce subject only to civil fines. Arrests have dropped since then, though they haven’t vanished.

Ask Lovell about his idea of a good cannabis measure and he’ll point you to MCRSA, the state’s new medical marijuana law that, once it takes full effect in 2018, will replace the state’s largely unregulated medical marijuana industry. Lovell worked with two of the law’s co-sponsors, the California Police Chiefs Association and League of California Cities. Assemblyman Tom Lackey (R-Palmdale), a co-author of MCRSA, says Lovell’s effectiveness as a lobbyist came from creating trust on both sides.

“Mr. Lovell was an important voice for law enforcement while we were crafting the medical cannabis legislation,” Lackey says. Having the lobbyist’s insight ensured “that the law enforcement community was comfortable with the final version of the MCRSA that became law. Mr. Lovell helped show that we can get positive outcomes on an issue as tough as medical cannabis when all sides come to the table and work in good faith.”

The act, as Lovell describes it, successfully balances consumer demand, business interests, and government oversight. It creates six different categories of medical marijuana operating licenses and, most important to Lovell, attempts to control vertical integration by limiting the number of licenses an operator can hold.

Given the current trend of distrust toward other industrial Bigs, it could be an effective strategy to warn of yet another. But if Lovell’s beef with Prop. 64 isn’t legalization per se, what, then, would his ideal legalization measure contain?

“There’s a number of things,” he says. “I think one of them is, yes, limiting vertical integration. Another is limiting advertising. Another is making sure there are some impaired-driving standards built into the bill. Another is making sure that it is relatively easy to amend if there are unintended issues that come up.” While Prop. 64 does addresses some of those issues, Lovell thinks it’s a bad bit of legislation all around.

Amid the competing claims and talking points around Prop. 64, there’s one thing Lovell and cannabis advocates can agree on. If it’s true that California’s legalization could create the template for national change, it’s well worth looking at closely, now and if it passes.

Images by Andrew Seng for Leafly

Brandon R. Reynolds's Bio Image
Brandon R. Reynolds

Brandon R. Reynolds is a Los Angeles-based writer and editor. His work has appeared in Los Angeles magazine, San Francisco magazine, and other publications.

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