Nate Bradley used to be a cop. Now he’s the marijuana legalization activist that California state legislators and weed entrepreneurs alike have come to rely on.
The son of a pastor and conservative Christian radio show host, Bradley has a well-used bong and a rig for dabbing hash oil on his desk in his office. His power lies in his ability to translate the struggles of the dispensary owner who sometimes wears fairy wings to the chair of the Republican caucus. He can bridge the gap between the activists and entrepreneurs who support marijuana legalization and the type of people who think pot smokers should be locked up.
Since starting the California Cannabis Industry Association (CCIA) at the end of 2012, the 35-year-old Bradley has spent his days bounding through the halls of the Capitol building and his nights hopping from reception to fundraiser, hoping to befriend influential legislators, lobbyists, and political staffers and communicate the details of what reasonable marijuana regulations might look like. “Make me your Google on this issue,” he tells them.
And they do.
California has the biggest and most entrenched cannabis industry in the nation, and cooperation between the perpetrators and the targets of the war on drugs is not easy. But this year, partly due to Bradley’s efforts, there is a real chance of passing a bill that will give the estimated 10,000 pot farmers in northern California some incentive to leave the black and gray markets behind forever. The divide between marijuana groups and law enforcement groups is vast — so vast that maybe only an ex-lawman turned pot enthusiast like Bradley could help realistically split the difference.
Last week, the California State Assembly passed AB-266, which would establish an elaborate regulatory framework for the sale, cultivation, and distribution of medical cannabis. In the next few months before it’s up for a vote in the Senate, legislators, law enforcement groups, and marijuana activists will continue negotiating and tinkering with the details.
Two weeks ago, AB-266 was two separate pieces of proposed legislation — one sponsored by the Police Chiefs Association and an association representing local governments called the League of California Cities, and the other more sympathetic to the marijuana industry itself. Without a system for regulating medical pot, pretty much everyone in the cannabis industry other than doctors and patients remains vulnerable to prosecution by the Department of Justice or raids by the Drug Enforcement Administration.
At the moment, California has only two statewide rules when it comes to pot. The first, passed by voters in 1996, allows doctors to prescribe cannabis. The second, passed by the legislature in 2003, allows patients to form collectives, now known as dispensaries. That’s it. Nothing about pesticides or farm inspections. Nothing about correctly labeling the strength of edibles. Nothing about what paperwork to show a cop if you’re pulled over while transporting pounds of product down from Humboldt County to San Diego. Nothing about obtaining a license to safely manufacture the explosive hash oil that now makes up about 40% of sales at dispensaries. With no tracking system in place, weed is regularly trafficked out of state, where it can fetch a much higher price. The few local regulations that do exist might change as soon as you leave the county. In 2011, two drivers for a locally legal "farm direct" delivery service in Mendocino County were arrested en route to patients in San Francisco, where delivery is also legal, because the county in between, Sonoma, has different laws.
The likelihood of a 2016 ballot initiative legalizing recreational use before the state can get the medical market under control looms large. On Thursday, May 28, the Assembly appropriations committee decided to merge the two medical marijuana regulatory bills, encouraging direct collaboration between law enforcement and the people they used to lock up, rather than allowing both versions to come to a vote in August. (A third comprehensive regulatory bill also passed, out of the Senate, but is almost exactly the same as a bill that failed last year.)
Bradley, who has experience both busting drug dealers and advising cannabis farmers on how to prepare for raids, has emerged as a key source of information and compromise, not just between activists and law enforcement, but for legislators as well.
“Nate has been very helpful. He was early in reaching out to me and I’ve taken that to heart,” said Assemblymember Ken Cooley, who worked with the League of California Cities and the Police Chiefs Association on the more conservative version of AB-266 and remains a co-author on the merged version of the bill. “Ultimately, with legislation, you’re trying to work out solutions among people, and you’ve got to be willing to be front and center and visible — and that’s what Nate has done,” Cooley told BuzzFeed News.
He’s also very likable, and in the small world of Sacramento, relationships go a long way. Behind his intense blue eyes and contained within what he often calls his “Shrek-like physique,” Bradley is a warm, goofy, and honest representative for what can often seem to legislators like a ruthless, anarchic, and duplicitous industry. He sweats a lot, and has a speech impediment. He’s quick with a compliment or a joke, and when he strays too far down the road of impressions and puns he’ll say, joyfully, “I’m getting campy!” He’s even managed to recruit a respected member of the Sacramento political establishment, Amy Jenkins, to serve as the CCIA’s official lobbyist, lending him more legitimacy in a political community that often compares itself to a high school.
Bradley has not only gotten in with some of the squares in the Capitol but also united, under the CCIA, a diverse and rowdy group of about a hundred cannabis business leaders who no longer want to be treated like criminals.
“You've got to give Nate tremendous credit for bringing people together who are by their nature nonconformists,” said Assemblymember Bill Quirk, a longtime proponent of marijuana legalization. “I don't think anyone’s done this before. Nate's the first one.”
Two weeks ago, as Bradley waited to hear about the fate of the two bills, he gathered about 20 of his members in an opulent room on the ground floor of the Capitol to kick off the CCIA’s legislative action day. After an hour or so of updates and advice for how to handle the slew of meetings he’d set up with legislators and staffers that day, the group took a break. Bradley paced the tiled hallway, muttering that his mind was in 10 places at once, before breaking off mid-sentence to shout, “Hey Lauren! Good to see you!”
He ran down the hall to Lauren Michaels, a frazzled-looking woman with a coffee thermos in one hand and her phone in the other. The legislative director for the Police Chiefs Association, Michaels had just walked out of a meeting and said her head was swimming with numbers, but she smiled when she saw Bradley in his black polka-dot bow tie and purple striped shirt.
“The CCIA, in our eyes, is one of the most solutions-oriented organizations to work with,” she told BuzzFeed News. “Nate is the most positive person, and he has a law enforcement background, so he understands when I say, Our members aren’t OK with that.”
In addition to the League of California Cities, which is trying to keep intact the patchwork of hard-won local regulations such as bans on delivery services or caps on the number of dispensaries, the Police Chiefs Association is widely seen as holding the keys to medical marijuana legislation in California, even if the two groups are no longer official sponsors of the merged version of AB-266. But many people in the cannabis industry have an almost visceral reaction to working with law enforcement.
“Right now the people that kicked down our doors for 40 years are still kind of at the head of the table,” said Hezekiah Allen, a third-generation cannabis farmer and director of The Emerald Growers Association. “They don't always negotiate in good faith.”
And some longtime activists, including San Francisco lawyer Matt Kumin, worry that the CCIA may be making too many policy sacrifices in order to get something passed.
“It is unfortunate that our allies, many of whom I respect and personally like, are taking the approach that any legislation regulating medical cannabis is better than no regulation at all,” Kumin said. “Having worked in this arena for the past 19 years, I am unwilling to make a bad compromise for expediency.”
But for Bradley, finding reasonable common ground feels both doable and necessary. If they can’t figure out a way to properly regulate the industry, every marijuana business in California will continue to be subject to raids by the DEA.
According to a 2013 directive from the Department of Justice referred to as the Cole Memo, the federal government will not interfere with states that have legalized marijuana, so long as those states “implement strong and effective regulatory and enforcement systems.”
Though the California legislature has tried year after year to put together a more detailed set of regulations, they have failed every time, creating a situation that pretty much everyone describes as chaos.
“For a lot of legislators, even talking about marijuana is a very uncomfortable conversation,” Assemblymember Jim Wood told the gathered members of CCIA, once everyone had filed back in the room. Wood’s more narrow regulatory bill concerning the environmental impact of cannabis farms, AB-243, also made it out of the Assembly this week.
Although multiple groups are jostling to get a legalization initiative on the ballot in 2016, and polls show it is likely to pass, most activists are wary of wading into the complicated situation posed by the medical market. As a result, if AB-266 doesn’t pass this year, there is a chance that an initiative in 2016 would legalize recreational use without even mentioning medical use, which is exactly what happened three years ago in Washington. Last summer, Washington’s strictly regulated recreational market opened, but many potheads found it cheaper to continue shopping at the unregulated medical shops. The state finally passed a corrective measure last month, folding the medical market into the recreational market over the course of the next year.
Before the CCIA headed to lunch, Bradley reminded everyone to stay respectful. Collaborating with people who disagreed with them now, he said, could prevent those same people from putting millions of dollars toward opposing a ballot initiative next year.
Luke Bruner, the dogmatic business manager at Wonderland Nursery and board member for several marijuana political groups, was eager to put in some face time with lawmakers.
“If they can understand we're an industry like any other industry, a lot of things will come into place,” he said. “This is ultimately going to come down to our personal relationships in the building.”
Fortunately for them, Bradley had paved the way.
Bradley was born in Redondo Beach, just south of Los Angeles, and moved to Sacramento when he was 9. The oldest of six, he was homeschooled and brought up in the Pentecostal evangelical Foursquare church. When he or his siblings misbehaved, they might be punished with “friend fasts,” when they weren’t allowed to speak to or see their friends.
His parents were also pro-life activists who helped run the West Coast branch of an organization called Operation Rescue, which blocks the doors of abortion clinics. After being arrested multiple times and investigated for racketeering, they began to focus on adoption instead of abortion, and by the age of 12 the eldest Bradley child was walking around the Capitol to lobby legislators on the issue and knocking on doors to campaign for pro-life assemblymembers.
Though he no longer identifies with any organized religion, Bradley said his early experiences watching his father in the pulpit and standing up for what he believed in inspired him.
Bradley’s brother Ben is the operations manager at CCIA, and when BuzzFeed News asked him what kind of kid Nate had been, Ben replied, “A bigger one.” Ben is thin and quiet, the one who takes all of the notes and keeps his older brother on schedule.
After six months playing football at a junior college, Bradley hurt his knee and dropped out. He soon met his wife, a nurse, and spent a few years figuring out his next step before deciding to become a police officer.
By 2003, he was one of eight cops in the small town of Wheatland. Three years later he was transferred to a bigger department just north of Sacramento, where he became known as the type of cop who talked to the Sheriff like they were old friends. His tendency to disregard rank and protocol pissed a lot of people off, and he eventually got told by the Sheriff he wasn’t cut out to be a cop and transferred back to Wheatland.
Meanwhile, he had started pouring himself a drink the moment he walked in the door each night. He knew it wasn’t healthy, but he felt like he couldn’t sleep without vodka, so he went to his doctor for advice.
“That’s when the pill rotation started,” Bradley said. Antidepressants, anti-anxiety medication, sleep medication, antipsychotics, painkillers, everything. He ballooned to 455 pounds and would sit in briefings with a stack of paper towels, to mop up the constant sweat.
Then one day, he and a few narcotics agents went to bust a marijuana grower, and the man who opened the door was in a wheelchair, missing a leg.
“You here for the plants? They’re mine,” the man said. He’d been in a car accident a while back, he said, and weed had helped him get off of all the pills he’d been on.
“A lightbulb the size of Kentucky went off in my head,” Bradley recalled. After a long conversation, he said, they left without arresting him.
By 2009, he was desperate enough to try cannabis for the first time. It was the beginning of October, and he woke up in the middle of yet another panic attack. He drove to the house of a local dealer named T-Bone, whose father he had helped wean off meth a few years back. T-Bone gave him some pot and a pipe.
A few days later, the recession-era budget cuts kicked in and he got laid off. He quit drinking, he quit pills, he got his medical marijuana prescription, and he lost 40 pounds in four months. Unsure of what to do with his time, he remembered a newspaper article he’d seen years earlier about a group called LEAP (Law Enforcement Against Prohibiton).
“Who are these dirty cops?” he said he had wondered at the time. “They want to fucking sell drugs to people?”
But now he understood. He signed up for their mailing list, checked a box saying he was former law enforcement, and within days he got a call. Could he be at an NAACP executive meeting in a week? The group was gearing up to campaign for Proposition 19, the failed 2010 ballot initiative that attempted to legalize marijuana, and they were looking for ex-cops who could capture an audience.
Bradley shaved his beard, got a haircut, put on the suit he used to wear to testify in court, and gave it his best shot.
“Next thing I knew, I was their main speaker for all of NorCal,” he said.
After Prop 19, he consulted for growers and dispensaries while getting more involved in marijuana activism and Sacramento lobbyist circles. He started a group called Lawmen Protecting Patients and in 2012 helped broker a deal on an ordinance between cannabis farmers and local government in Yuba County.
With that experience under his belt, he decided to take what he had learned statewide, and formed the CCIA at the end of December 2012.
At first, most people dismissed him.
“There’ve been a number of failed attempts to create different trade associations in the California cannabis industry, and so there was some skepticism when CCIA was initially being pulled together,” said Steve DeAngelo, owner of Harborside Health Center, the biggest dispensary in the country. “It was largely through Nate’s persistence that he actually achieved critical mass. The California industry deserves a lot of criticism for not being more generous in their support of CCIA and understanding its importance.”
By the spring of 2013, when Bradley began meeting with staffers at the Capitol and providing them with more information about the industry they were trying to regulate, the CCIA had only four members, none of which had paid their dues.
One day he was at home, watching the state Senate on TV, when then-Senate President pro Tempore Darrell Steinberg stood up to talk about regulating medical marijuana. When Bradley heard some of the facts and talking points he’d given Steinberg’s staffers repeated in the speech, he stood up, threw his hands in the air, and did a touchdown dance.
On the afternoon of the CCIA’s legislative action day, bewildered staffers hosted upbeat cannabis entrepreneurs in blazers and heels. Many people in the marijuana industry are too afraid of legal consequences for what they are doing to get involved in politics, so to a certain extent the CCIA’s members are a self-selecting crowd of high-profile businesspeople and activists.
Even though not everyone is happy with every decision that the CCIA has made, the type of person in the pot industry who is politically engaged enough to be aware of Bradley is also reluctant to criticize him publicly. He and the CCIA have already come so close to accomplishing what no one else has been able to in the past two decades, and no one wants to jeopardize their chances for passing a bill that would protect them from the federal government.
At this point, three final issues need to be negotiated over the summer. Which agencies will oversee regulation? How much power will local jurisdictions have? And how many types of licenses will a cannabis business be able to access?
Although some members of the CCIA want pot businesses to be able to obtain several types of licenses, law enforcement and most farmers want to avoid anything that looks like corporate pot, which would push out small businesses and make it easier for big organizations to cook the books in order to send a few pounds here and there out of state.
At 5 p.m., Bradley and his members headed to a reception hosted by The Emerald Growers Association. Half an hour later, he was out the door. “We’ll be right back!” he called to the women at the front table, though he knew he would not be. At the next event, on a rooftop patio, a man had been hired to sit at a table and hand-roll cigars.
There were beers, and then there were shots of Jameson, and then there were more beers. A group of lobbyists and staffers who wished to remain nameless ended up back at the CCIA office for dabs and bong hits, before heading over to a bar called Simon’s. Intoxicated but undeterred, Bradley immediately approached some Senate staffers and continued business as usual. By 11:30 p.m., they had been drinking for six and a half hours, and no one seemed to have eaten dinner. Bradley was hunched over a table with Khurshid Khoja, the CCIA’s lawyer, plotting a strategy for whatever might happen the following day, when they would find out which bills would make it out of the appropriations committee.
The next morning he sat at his desk, hungover, texting people while a live stream of the appropriations committee played on his computer. When he got a call saying the bills had been merged, he pumped his arm — "Yes!” Elsewhere in Sacramento the more liberal marijuana activists who had openly opposed Cooley’s more conservative bill felt crushed.
Some of Bradley’s members had wanted to oppose the Police Chiefs Association and League of California Cities version of the bill, but Bradley had encouraged the CCIA to remain neutral, putting them in the best possible position to continue negotiating over the summer.
“I don't burn bridges. As a cop, my goal was to never have to worry about anyone stabbing me in the back,” he said. He recalled how the previous week, when stakeholders were offering testimony for and against various bills, he’d run into Cooley in the hallway of the Capitol.
“I’m not testifying against your bill today, because I really appreciate everything you’ve done for us,” Bradley had told the assemblymember. “I’m looking forward to working with you.”
Cooley grabbed Bradley’s hand. “I really appreciate that,” he’d said. “We need to figure out a way to get everyone on the same page.”
Amanda Chicago Lewis is a national reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Los Angeles.
Contact Amanda Chicago Lewis at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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