The farmer-slash-policy wonk head of the Emerald Growers Association is making his mark in the state capital and beyond at a critical moment in the legalization movement.
Like any lobbyist worth his salt, Hezekiah Allen, the 32-year-old executive director of the Emerald Growers Association (soon to become the California Growers Association) is a peripatetic blur, and getting ahold of him is like catching lighting in a bottle. But once you realize that, in addition to creating relationships with all 40 State Senators and 80 Assembly Members and their staffs, he is also in the midst of expanding the EGA from a regional group into a statewide compendium of cultivators and other like-minded professionals, the fact that he can provide any time for an interview becomes a miracle onto itself.
Similar to the titular character played by Jimmy Stewart in Frank Capra’s classic film, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Mr. Allen projects a simplicity born of decency; but unlike Mr. Smith, he approaches his political role like a man on a mission, in this case to bring order and professionalism where there has been chaos and, at times, violence. While hardly an intrinsic part of the agrarian ethos, that violence is the by-product of 40 years of prohibition, mostly perpetrated not by but upon growers, by law enforcement and others, seeking to deny them (and society) the fruits of their labor or to brutally profit from it. Now, however, as the national conscience is evolving, these generations of cultivators can finally envision a life in which this most beneficial of God’s gifts can be planted, tilled, harvested and sold without fear of reprisal.
But getting from here to there is no mean feat, especially in a state as diverse and contentious as California, which, to be sure, also wants its manna and its control. And not every grower has been on board with the ambitious task the EGA has set for itself. Some wanted things to stay as they have been, while others were committed to seeing the trade group mature into a dominant force in state economics and politics. It is that internal friction that in part led to the turnover of its board of directors, the exit of its former executive director and the decision to bring on Allen as the new, young face of the California cannabis cultivator community. And so, in order to better understand his role as the head of what arguably is already the most powerful group of growers in the state, we sat down recently to till his mind about the obstacles and opportunities that lay before him, and how he intends to build a member base that will work together help make the decades long journey from prohibition to legalization into a rational and workable reality.
How do you define yourself politically?
You could call me a strange mix between farmer, policy wonk and social butterfly. I like to have dance parties and have fun. And I like to work hard and turn concepts into policies and empower aspirations. The state capital is the perfect place to help bring regulation and sanity to the cannabis industry in California.
But I do come from a small town. I don’t have a political lineage. I’m a farmer who believes passionately in the collective strength of our industry and wants to see our product, our values and our legacies treated respectfully and professionally. The pathway to respect and professionalism is through regulation and compliance, which, of course, are political issues. That’s what I work for every day.
What does it mean to you to be a third-generation California farmer?
Let’s clear up the third-generation part. My grandparents cultivate, on my dad’s side. I’ve never really met my dad, though I have had some conversations with my grandpa on that side, and he has a deep and lifelong relationship with cannabis. That said, I grew up in a household that supplemented income with cannabis and I grew commercially for nearly a decade before focusing on public policy.
What all that means is that I’m part of a community. More specifically, I’m part of a community that comes from a shared belief that a better world is possible. I think cannabis attracts people who dream of making things better, and reinforces those mutual ambitions.
I think it also means I was probably born to do this job. No matter where you’re born or what your family background is, your world-view evolves as you go through life. Fortunately, I have a strong sense of values about the significance of our industry and its place in the world, both politically and environmentally. Having been a farmer, and having a background in farming, means I understand the historical, cultural, environmental and health-related aspects of what we do, and the contributions each farmer makes to our communities.
What does it mean to you to be the executive director of the Emerald Growers Association? Are you still interested in pursuing elective office?
I’m honored by the trust given to me by the farmers, business owners, and individuals that I represent. I’m relatively young, I make mistakes, and I have a lot to learn. But, I can’t really see a better way to spend the foreseeable future. Who knows, things change. But for now I’m focused on getting CGA organized. Even with the monumental progress we made in California in 2015, the work really is just beginning.
We have to quickly grow and develop a regulatory affairs program capable of engaging professionally and consistently with more than a dozen boards, bureaus, committees and commissions. We need a robust program to interface with local governments to ensure that counties and cities put these new policy tools to work. We need to take an active role in the initiative process and we need to maintain our leadership in legislative affairs.
As for elected office: I have no specific plans at this point. If an opportunity were to come along where I could help create change in a positive way for people, I’d certainly consider it. But I’m building bridges now, it’s why I moved to Sacramento, and it’s something I will keep doing. I’ve always said I wanted to represent forests, rivers, fish, and pot. There are a lot of ways to do that, and for now I am staying focused on my work.
What are the most important qualities that you bring to the job?
Vision. All my life I have thought critically about the important role that cannabis can play in 21st century California.
Commitment. This is my way of life, my culture, and it is that way for everyone in my community. I can’t imagine walking away from this—it would be like walking away from oxygen.
Focus. A willingness to learn and the discipline to stay focused even when the going gets tough.
Strategy. I understand the importance of taking things step by step, and think a lot about the order of operations when comes to implementation.
Leadership. Over the last year, we’ve put together a great team in Sacramento. And we’re going to get even better. I don’t see myself as the coach or the manager. I’m just out there working hard together to make this happen.
How large an organization do you envision the Association becoming? How are you doing in terms of fundraising and creating support for the Association’s goals?
Our goal is 1,000 members, and we make progress toward that goal each day. We’ve created membership classes to match all the license types in the legislation that passed in 2015. Every segment of the industry—from grower to distributor to delivery service, as well as labs, manufacturers, and retailers should be at one table working together.
Working together is what allowed our young organization to experience such tremendous progress—in terms of policy and member growth. We’ve seen some really huge growth in both areas and expect that growth to increase.
We really held off on doing significant outreach during the legislative session—we were totally focused on Sacramento.
Over the last year we have seen a generational shift in the leadership of the growers association. The vision of our new generation of leadership is of an inclusive organization. And this much is clear: In order to be effective in California state politics, we have to work together.
We’re not going to be divided by things like indoor or outdoor or warehouse or greenhouse. Our strength is our commitment to a values driven, values added industry that starts with independent craft growers. This strength is matched by the strength of our community.
Our members are committed to building build resilience into our communities by diversifying our crops and to be recognized for our values and the contributions that every farmer makes to his or her community. That recognition will come through best management practices, regulation and compliance.
Is there a fundamental vision shared by your members?
Absolutely. Our membership is driven by shared values. We are committed to building California’s cannabis industry into a model industry for the 21st century. Good jobs. Best management practices. People, planet and profit—on a level playing field. We are about more than the bottom line. We are committed to a values-added, values driven world-class cannabis industry, because that is what we have always known. Our members are global leader in the cannabis industry and we want to protect California’s leadership.
Our shared vision grew up on the independent, artisanal farms in the state. It’s the vision that resonates with the values of people up and down the state—urban, rural, consumer, budtender. We know we can provide a high-quality product in a safe, legal and complaint environment because we have been leading the way for decades. Regulations don’t scare us. They will provide welcome clarity and legitimacy.
So, we want to transition an unregulated mess to a productive 21st century powerhouse industry. And we want to do it using 21st century values of local economic opportunity, decentralization, and resilience. We want to build a better world and know cannabis can do that. So we are going to stand together for that common purpose. And when we’re amazingly strong. That’s the CGA vision.
In your campaign to grow the EGA from a regional group into a statewide group, has the overall mission also evolved?
The mission has evolved significantly. The core principle that has driven this change was inclusiveness, or togetherness. The organization functioned for several years as an exclusive organization focused solely on the interests of outdoor growers, and primarily outdoor growers on the North Coast. The thing about Sacramento is, it’s the state capitol of all of California. Most of the representatives have no idea what the “emerald triangle” is, because, let’s face it, outside of the cannabis community not a lot of people do. In order to be effective in California state politics, cannabis growers need to work together. That’s what our association is focused on.
The transition to a statewide group happened congruent with a generational transition in leadership. Between July 2014 and the present the organization has seen a 100 percent turnover on the board of directors; membership has increased about tenfold; we have members and supporters in way more counties than we used to and we are just getting started with major outreach in a lot of the urban centers in the state. This transition really represents an organic growth and new found maturity within our movement.
When do you expect the Emerald Growers Association to become the California Growers Association? Is there any opposition within the ranks?
The process is underway as we speak. Our focus in recent weeks has been the legislative session in Sacramento, which has been monumental for our industry, but the expansion and rebirth process is moving along fine. I’m not aware of any opposition, but if anyone were to ask, I’d tell them it’s impossible to lose influence when your base has grown from regional to statewide proportions. By representing more independent craft farmers on a collective basis, we’re making the economy of scale come alive in Sacramento and every county in the state.
We will seat our founding board at the emerald cup in December.
Why are “appellation controls to protect California’s craft farmers and valuable heritage” such an important part of your legislative agenda?
I’d love to have you ask a grape grower in Napa or Champagne that question. They would be far more articulate than me in explaining how these policy tools have protected the unique heritage in their communities. They fought and won appellation battles generations ago, because their product was so remarkable, unique and valuable.
When you have a product like we do in California, it can easily be targeted and literally stolen as somebody’s marketing ploy, which defrauds the customer and ultimately destroys the brand. We’ve got something extremely special in California, and we’re proud of it, just like the wine growers in Napa. We’ve got to protect it.
THE NEW REGS & LEGISLATION
Why was it so important that California pass cannabis regulation now?
Right now we have an unregulated mess. Responsible industry leaders are at a disadvantage because of disparities at the local level or competitive advantages gained by unscrupulous behavior. I absolutely believe the prohibition of cannabis is an injustice. I am committed to restoring justice for this plant within our communities, but why would we run a ballot initiative to scale up an unregulated mess? I said I thought about the order of operations. This is what I meant. We need sanity in this industry before we can scale it up.
How instrumental was the governor’s office in getting these bills passed?
Gov. Brown is one of the most experienced public servants in the state. He is incredibly in tune with the people of California, as illustrated by his popularity. His staff are top notch. They brought an elegance to the process of refining the monumental progress made in the state legislature.
Really, since early December when we started work on this, it has been one huge breakthrough after another. Through more than a dozen policy committees, fiscal committees, historic votes in both chambers, this legislative package touched nearly every corner of the state government. Public process was robust. There was input from countless diverse perspectives. Dozens of amazing and brilliant people spent countless hours improving the public policy. Committed members in the State Assembly and Senate exhibited great leadership to carry this complicated legislation.
At the end, it took some last-minute magic from the governor’s office to get the legislative effort wrapped up. Now we have to figure out what implementation looks like, and get started.
Do you believe your lobbying efforts influenced the progress of these bills?
Yes, we have established ourselves as a leading source of information on the subject in Sacramento. We have been consistent—both with our message and with our presence. We are available to answer questions.
I’ve made a lot of good friends—laughed, cried, and worked hard—with a lot of amazing and brilliant people both in the building and outside in the capitol community, and everyone on our team has done the same. This is a pretty amazing community of people working hard—despite great stress and often time’s fundamental disagreements—to make our state a better place. There is so much work left to do. We are just getting started and our community-oriented approach to politics is sure to be an asset going forward.
And yes, these bills look a lot better from our perspective because we were at the table. It truly is an honor and a pleasure to have been included in the conversation.
How would you describe the current state of cooperation and coordination among the lobbying groups representing the cannabis community/industry in California?
It’s pretty amazing—everybody has been dialed in and on the same page. We wouldn’t be looking at success if we were fighting, sending contradictory messages and speaking with divergent voices. You can always tell when that happens: legislators lose interest in a hurry.
Finding common ground and compromise are two of the most important ingredients to making policy progress. With a situation as complicated as cannabis in California, it’s not always easy to find common ground. But one thing wasn’t complicated: the state quo wasn’t working. We needed to make progress.
What will the status of Los Angeles County’s cannabis industry be following passage of those bills, and what can people in LA can expect to see over time?
The situation in L.A. is going to require some special attention. We are in the early stages of building relationships in L.A. In August we brought on our first board members from L.A. Give me a few months to better understand the situation, for us to build a strategy and a message together, and then I will let you know what L.A. should expect to see over time.
As we’ve seen in other states, legalization can be a messy process requiring years of revisions. Do you see a similar process shaping up in California?
Absolutely. California is different. We have a much bigger, way more established industry. We have generations of heritage and culture tied up in this. California is the global leader in this industry and we are transition to a regulated marketplace. It will be messy.
We’ll make mistakes and need to clean up some oversights, but after this year, I think we are much farther along in California. I’m not worried about some inevitable minor revisions. In fact, I’m looking forward to improvements we can make as we have more reliable date and we can adaptively manage the regulatory programs.
We’ve shown the ability to work together, within the industry and among policy makers, regulators and law enforcement in California. With all of us pulling in the same direction, trying to make it right, we’ll be a best practice example before you know it.
How important is it to the rest of the country that California get regulation right?Critical. Everyone watches California. The rest of the world considers us a nation unto our own, and rightfully so. We have extremely high expectations set for us and set by us, thanks to our leadership position in world, but we’re up to the task. You’re seeing it all come together right now.
How confident are you that California voters will approve adult use legalization next year?
I’m extremely confident that it will pass eventually. I know that a vast majority of California thinks that cannabis should be enjoyed as freely as our world-class wine. Will that happen next year? I can’t say. There are a lot of different factions within the movement and a lot of organizing still to come. We are encouraged by the great work of Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and the leadership from the State Legislature this year. We are excited to be working with ReformCA, the leading organization pulling people together. I can tell you one thing for sure: 2016 is going to be an exciting year for cannabis politics in California.
You speak to a lot of people, from small, medium and large business owners to legislators and everyone in between. Is there common ground they all share?
There is a strong sense of shared values that draw our community together. I find there is far more common ground than opposition. What we’ve seen in the last couple of years and in the months leading up to the 2015 legislative session is that people who disagree on various points understand that our industry’s moment has arrived. It’s that critical mass I’ve been speaking about. That’s a powerful thing—they know it’s time to put aside their differences and get on board or get out of the way. There’s a sense that ultimately, we’ve been fighting for recognition and regulation for generations now, and it’s finally within our grasp.
Do you have a sense of the number of cities that will prohibit cannabis businesses?
I don’t believe anyone can make a prediction along those lines right now, because of the momentum we’re seeing on this issue. It’s an interesting thing to watch: When the wave is breaking over you, it’s hard to stand in place motionless, waiting for the tide to change. The wave is breaking now, and people are moving. My guess is, you will be surprised by the number of cities and counties that get on board once state regulation and licensing become a present-tense reality. It will be a reality check and a testament to the importance of having sound regulation at the state level.
What’s next on your agenda now that the regs have been passed?
The initiative process is obviously big on our future agendas. So is regulatory affairs; local government. Of course we will continue to lead in legislative affairs. Being a leader in California state politics means covering all four bases. So we are growing our membership and building the best team in Sacramento.
Do you expect to see an increase in law enforcement activity against existing cannabis businesses in the run up to next year’s election?
I’d be very surprised and disappointed if that happened. It’s important to consider what we’ve seen from law enforcement during this legislative session—we’ve seen support for regulation and compliance. Sure, there have been raids up and down the state have
This reflects more than a shift in philosophy by law enforcement. It reflects a fundamental shift on this issue. Now we are talking about public policy and solutions whereas before we were forced to deal with uncertainty and persistent echoes of the drug war.
I think there is an acknowledgment of the critical mass, and the fact that public safety agencies know there’s a serious direct benefit for them in the revenue derived from compliance, plus a potential end to the cartels. I don’t think either community is ready to let go of some of the things they have seen and experienced over the last several decades, but I do think we are ready to start building a new era of partnership. That’s not to say there won’t isolated problems and issues. I just don’t think we’ll be returning to the bad old days simply because it’s an election year.
Do you have a position on drugged driving, edibles, dosaging and testing?
We are really excited about safe roads, and about people having good experiences while using our products. We want this to be a safe and healthy industry.
Dosage and driving are two high priorities for the next few years. This year’s legislation provides a great starting point for that dialogue and we are definitely committed to working on those issues. We also will insist that driving regulation restrict impaired driving not simply driving as a cannabis user. In other words, we need good science and objective thresholds of impairment.
When it comes to dosage, we need to acknowledge the difference between a first-time user and a long-time patient. For some a “micro-dose” is more than adequate to have a bad experience. For others a mega-dose is the only thing that will stimulate the much needed appetite. There’s also a lot of different active ingredients that need to be taken into account. Dosage is a big topic and one that we’re committed to working on. Luckily, our state is home to many leading edibles companies and their experience and practices are a great foundation for good regulations.
Do you still believe that the claimed damage wrought by California cannabis growers is exaggerated? If so, what needs to be done to correct that perception?
Not exaggerated, misunderstood. I’ll put it simply: California uses 35,000,000 feet or more per year on agriculture. Cannabis uses less than 15,000 acre feet. See the difference? 35 million versus 15 thousand. That’s not to say that cannabis isn’t having a huge impact in sensitive watersheds and endangered species. Where I come from, irresponsible water practices are a key factor in the continued decline of the salmon that were once abundant in our area. Consumers need to know that the choices they make about the cannabis they buy is a critical driver of environmental impacts. That’s why we need regulation, so things can be certified. Whether organic, sun-grown, carbon neutral, or salmon safe, certifications and informed consumers can have a huge impact.
I think we need a carbon-neutral industry. I think we need to store all the water we use during the dry season. We need to manage runoff of wastewater. I support regulations to achieve these goals. However, I also want to be mindful of not creating a regulatory maze. We need these programs to be accessible. We need incentives for good practices.
But we have to do more. We can’t stop with simply ensuring best practices going forward. We have to make sure that some of the revenue from this industry is invested into cleaning up the messes caused by the criminal and unregulated farmers. And why stop there? Our state needs healthy watersheds, and I’ve always believed cannabis could provide much needed funding for this important work.
How will regulating cannabis as agriculture positively impact the environment?
It brings in things like pesticide regulation. None exist now. Licensed producers will have a license that they will lose if they violate environmental regulations. The legislation clearly requires all licensed cultivation to take place in compliance with a suite of existing environmental regulations.
Do cannabis farmers have a special role to play in ensuring that the state remains a national leader in the sustainable cultivation of all crops?
I don’t believe you can separate farmers by crop and seed on this issue—saying for example, that a cotton farmer or a rice farmer has less or more obligation from a sustainability standpoint than a farmer in our industry. The drought hasn’t picked out certain farmers for punishment and rained on the rest. It’s nailed everyone. That’s another great reason why our industry is eager to embrace regulation and compliance. We want to be held responsible for the sustainability of our crop.
Do you believe there should be a limit to the number of cannabis crops allowed in the state, for environmental or other reasons?
Absolutely not. The consensus is clear: small farms are the sustainable path forward. If anything, we should limit the size of farms for environmental reasons. Limiting the number of farms will force those production facilities to get larger and they will quickly look more like factories than farms. Industrial agriculture is a very damaging thing, from an environmental perspective. We must be vigilant against factory farms in the cannabis industry. Limiting the size of the farm to encourage fair market access for small producers is a much more reasonable pathway to a sustainable industry.
Good thing is decentralized farms are also the backbone of resilient economies. So the environmental and economic benefits overlap in agriculture. Cannabis can be an important crop to help rebuild a robust network of small, independent farms in California, but we have a lot of work to still do and a lot of partnerships still to build.