Los Angeles is said to be the world’s largest marijuana market. But for the 20 years medical marijuana has been legal in California, the city has not created a regulatory framework so that the industry can operate and grow legally. That changed last month when Angelenos passed Measure M, which supporters believe will be a model for how to govern the industry and enable Southern California to take its rightful place as a hub of cannabis trade and innovation. Reaching this point was not inevitable, and the struggle has lasted decades.
Without these five marijuana change-makers, it could have taken much longer.
Among California’s most prominent politicians, Lt. Gov. (and 2018 gubernatorial candidate) Gavin Newsom was the strongest supporter of 2016's Proposition 64, which legalized recreational weed in California. Newsom says he has never used marijuana and characterizes his views as “not pro-pot but anti-prohibition.” In June at a conference in Oakland, he warned cannabis businesses that failure to pass the measure would set back legalization nationwide. “I kind of got frustrated by some of our colleagues because they weren’t leading,” he said. He characterized U.S. drug policy as “a war on the poor, on folks of color, and it’s got to end.” This marked a shift from 2010, when he opposed Proposition 19, which aimed to legalize weed in California.
As head of the Southern California Coalition (SCC), Virgil Grant helped lead the effort to pass Measure M. Originally from Compton, he ran dispensaries and had cultivated his own crop in Humboldt before a 2008 bust sent him to prison for six years. After his return, Grant worked to unify various factions of the Los Angeles cannabis industry, first as a founder of the California Minority Alliance and then with the SCC umbrella organization. By creating one primary industry body, Virgil helped design the SCC to cut out much of the confusion as growers, manufacturers and dispensaries were all trying to convey their needs. In addition to his work as an organizer, Grant is developing the brand California Cannabis.
Support from Napster founder and tech industry gadfly Sean Parker enabled Proposition 64, at one point known as “the Parker Initiative,” to emerge from the numerous legalization proposals that reached Sacramento. He gave a reported $8.5 million to support Proposition 64. The next largest contributor, an organization associated with liberal billionaire and financier George Soros, contributed roughly half that amount. Parker also contributed to legalization efforts in Oregon. Despite his evident interest in legalization, Parker has not spoken about the cause or publicly involved himself with any marijuana companies. Parker was previously a general partner at Peter Thiel’s Founders Fund, but he left before it made a multimillion-dollar investment in Privateer Holdings, parent company of the cannabis site Leafly and the brand Marley Natural.
As California state director for the Drug Policy Alliance, L.A. native Lynne Lyman helped to shape the proposal that became known as Proposition 64. While the proposal was seen as overly friendly to big business in some of the more social justice–oriented cannabis circles, Lyman called it “the most advanced marijuana legalization measure to date.” Right after it passed, she told the L.A. Times that the law “focuses on undoing the most egregious harms of marijuana prohibition, which have disproportionately impacted communities of color.”
Marijuana legalization almost happened in the 1970s. But by 1987, when Dale Gieringer took a job as director of California NORML, it was not a promising cause. The Reagan administration took a famously hard anti-drug line, and NORML had nowhere near the clout of a decade before. Gieringer, who went to Harvard and has a Ph.D. in policy and economics from Stanford, began working with Dennis Peron, the San Francisco activist who had helped dying AIDS patients gain access during the height of the epidemic. Both of them worked on Proposition 215, which legalized medical marijuana in California in 1996.