LOS ANGELES — A California representative may have just become the first statewide elected official to consume cannabis in public.
Assemblymember Reggie Jones-Sawyer (D-Gardena) took to the stage with singer-songwriter Melissa Etheridge at a small theater West Hollywood on Thursday night. Awash in dramatic stage lighting, Etheridge sat side-by-side with Jones-Sawyer and taught him how to operate a vape pen.
He then slowly inhaled the Pineapple Thai. It was the first time he’d had cannabis, he said, since 1979.
“Somebody said I’m overdue,” he laughed.
After the two puffed on the 5:1 CBD to THC cartridge, Etheridge began to serenade Jones-Sawyer and the rest of the room with an acoustic version of “Ain’t No Sunshine.” When it was over, the two hugged it out.
The public display was planned—a photo op staged at Thursday’s fundraiser for the state’s 59th Assembly District representative. Still, it was a symbol of a broader message. Jones-Sawyer, part of the “founding five” who drafted an overhaul of the state’s medical marijuana market, said public officials need to start doing their part to destigmatize the drug, whether that means talking about personal use or, in this case, openly consuming.
“I’ll be the first one,” he said onstage Thursday night. “I’ll be the guinea pig.”
The crowd at the newly opened venue, An 11:11 Experience, consisted largely of folks in cannabis industry, to whom Jones-Sawyer—who’s up for re-election this year—spoke about his personal and political history of advocating for legal, regulated cannabis. Last year, Jones-Sawyer wrote an LA Times op-ed titled “Why I want legal marijuana in my South L.A. district.” He also introduced AB 1578, a bill that would prohibit state and local agencies in California from assisting federal law enforcement in any crackdown on legal cannabis. And earlier this year, he co-authored a bill that would temporarily cut taxes for state-licensed cannabis businesses in order to help quash California’s still-thriving illegal market.
Addressing fundraiser guests, Jones-Sawyer both acknowledged the many economic opportunities cannabis can bring and emphasized the need for social equity—specifically, ensuring that people of color, unfairly impacted by the war on drugs, have equitable access to joining the industry. He said he’s seen firsthand the consequences of the drug war in his district, which encompasses a swath of South LA neighborhoods that have large black and Latino populations.
“Some of the most brilliant people I’ve ever met in my life, at least as far as business is concerned, are locked up,” he told the crowd.
Event organizers say Jones-Sawyer’s vaping display was the first time an elected official has publicly consumed cannabis.
The rapid spread of legalization has led to a lot of firsts in the political sphere. In February, Chicago Democrat Benjamin Thomas Wolf, who’s running for Congress in Illinois, smoked a joint in a campaign advertisement. The dramatic image features Wolf—a former FBI agent—seated before a painting of the American flag, wearing a suit and casually holding a joint. He’s surrounded by thick plumes of cannabis smoke. (Wolf has since been publicly accused of abuse and exaggerating his resume.)
In Nevada, state Sen. Tick Segerblom was the first person in line to buy cannabis on July 1 of last year as the state launched adult-use sales. His enthusiastic cannabis support earned the politician a strain named in his honor.
And in 2014, Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes got a slap on the wrist for bringing legally purchased cannabis back to his office, where it’s illegal to possess controlled substances. Holmes had made the purchases at Washington’s recently legal adult-use stores. At a subsequent press conference, Holmes said: “I’m keeping one bag for posterity and one for personal enjoyment at some point when it’s appropriate.”
Thursday’s fundraiser for Jones-Sawyer was held in the city of West Hollywood. Though not Jones-Sawyer’s district, the city was early adopter and enthusiastic supporter of legal cannabis, first during the state’s medical marijuana era and now in the adult-use age.
Whether the ceremonial smoking was 100% above board, however, is a bit fuzzy. Leafly contacted the Bureau of Cannabis Control to see whether the state regulatory agency felt the display was in accordance with state law, and the bureau’s answer was less than clear.
“The final verdict is that we can’t comment without knowing all the details/nature of the event and the location,” Alex Traverso, the agency’s communications chief, said in an email.
Prior to Jones-Sawyer putting the vape pen to his lips, guests milled around in the green room, where a suited-and-booted representative from vape cartridge company Delta 9 showed Etheridge how their products work. Etheridge, a medical cannabis patient who was famously busted for possession last year at the US–Canadian border, has been outspoken advocate and even launched her own line of cannabis products.
At Thursday’s event, she discussed her bout with breast cancer, poked fun at Jones-Sawyer’s “Mad Men”-esque outfit, and talked about how humans’ endocannabinoid systems seem to predestine us for cannabis.
“We were,” she said, “kind of made to work with this plant.”