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Marijuana lobbyist's fundraiser for DA raises questions

Matt Drange/California Watch

Wearing a black cocktail dress and maroon high heels, Jessica Ryan balanced a check-filled leatherbound guestbook in one hand and a mojito in the other.

A secretary for one of the top medical marijuana lobbyists in Sacramento, Ryan flashed a smile as she greeted each of the roughly three dozen people who gathered in a private penthouse loft in Midtown Sacramento on Wednesday evening. Some came dressed in suits; others wore jeans and short-sleeve checkered shirts. But all were there for the same thing – to donate money to Humboldt County District Attorney Paul Gallegos and celebrate medical marijuana and “its exciting future in California.”

The event caused some to question the ethics of an elected law enforcement official receiving money from an advocacy group for a practice that, while legal in California, remains a crime in the eyes of the federal government. The Department of Justice released a memo last week that reaffirms its stance that, state law or not, the medical marijuana industry is not exempt from federal law.

Organized by Max Del Real, president and CEO of the California Cannabis Business League, last week's event served as both a fundraiser for Gallegos and a “social and networking engagement," according to the invitation. A nonprofit trade association representing members of the state's medical cannabis industry, the group's focus is not just legalization, but job creation, public safety and community wellness, Del Real said.

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The focus on Wednesday, however, was clear, with suggested donations for Gallegos ranging from $250 to $2,500. The money will go to pay off the more than $40,000 in campaign debt Gallegos racked up last year – the bulk of which is owed to his wife. Guests included representatives of the Humboldt Growers Association, members of the California State Board of Equalization, medical marijuana dispensary owners and former Sacramento City Councilman Robbie Waters. The event was closed to reporters.

While Del Real later declined to provide the list of attendees and the total amount raised for Gallegos at the fundraiser, he said he would be happy to talk about the event afterward. Numerous phone messages left on Del Real's cell phone through the end of the week, however, were not returned.

Gallegos, meanwhile, said before the event that he had no problem with members of the media attending, adding that he supported the notion of openness for an industry that lives largely in the shadows.

“I'm an elected official, but at the same time, these people are not," Gallegos said, adding that while he could not speak for Del Real, he thought the league stood to benefit from more exposure. “These are legitimate people that are trying to change the law – why would they not want it to be out there?”

William Vizzard, a former Fresno County sheriff and professor of criminal justice at CSU Sacramento, said marijuana “is and isn't” legal in California, comparing it to the Prohibition era of the early 20th century. He said the fundraiser "definitely raised some questions."

“We've kind of reached a point in California in which we say it's medical marijuana, but the reality is that we've thrown our hands up and just accepted it,” Vizzard said. “It's a very cloudy situation. Especially when you have areas like (Humboldt County) where it's so weakly enforced to begin with.”

Others said the fundraiser did not cross any ethical or moral lines and was merely a day-to-day interaction between special interest groups and elected officials in Sacramento. Tom Angell, spokesman for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, or LEAP, said he did not think the fundraiser was an exception.

“There's certainly a lot to be said about what flooding our political system with so much money has done to democracy,” Angell wrote in an e-mail to California Watch. “But there doesn't appear to be anything particularly egregious about medical cannabis industry players participating in the political process and supporting candidates who they agree with on the issues, just as other organizations and businesses do every day.”

Dan Schnur, former chairman of California's Fair Political Practices Commission and director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California, echoed that sentiment and said that as long as Gallegos is not condoning illegal behavior, he is in the clear. Schnur likened Gallegos attending the event to an elected official who advocates for gay marriage, which like marijuana varies from state to state in its legality.

“There's a big difference between advocating for illegal behavior on one hand and arguing that the law should be changed on the other,” Schnur said. “As long as he isn't saying that people should light up marijuana cigarettes in the street, I think he should be on pretty safe ground.”

For his part, Gallegos said he didn't see anything wrong with the relationship, and he was adamant that he would not change the way he runs his office because of whom he receives money from. The problem, Gallegos said – and one that he hoped could be addressed with ideas from the event – is that the law leaves too much room for interpretation.

"We prosecute marijuana all the time. I want clarity because I don't want to waste my resources and my time prosecuting people that I cannot convict," Gallegos said, adding that he thought Humboldt County deserved to see some of the money from an industry that, in many cases, is trying to cooperate with the law.

"These are people who are trying to operate lawfully, and they want protection from the law like any other business," he said. "The problem is that you have some people who philosophically oppose the business. Here you have an industry that is thriving, and yet we're too afraid to give it legitimacy. It's a battle that we're fighting, and we're not winning."

The key to a relationship between an elected official like Gallegos and special interest groups like the cannabis league, Vizzard said, is whether Gallegos alters his behavior in any way because of the money he received. For a district attorney, Vizzard said this could take any number of shapes, including not prosecuting cases that he otherwise would have.

“It's really a gray area that's raised for every elected politician who gets money from interest groups,” Vizzard said, adding that the influence lobbyists carry can be even more pronounced with legislators. “If they (district attorneys) are also going to be elected, how can we expect them not to be influenced by politics?”

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