When California Needs Cannabis Laws, it Calls This Highway Patrolman

Published on November 16, 2017 · Last updated July 28, 2020
Assemblyman Tom Lackey, R-Palmdale, speaks at the Capitol, Wednesday, May 31, 2017, in Sacramento, Calif. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

During his 28 years with the California Highway Patrol, Tom Lackey spent much of his career on the overnight shift, “working as other people were asleep.”

Tom Lackey is emerging as the go-to Republican on cannabis issues. The former cop is now defending California's legal, regulated system.

He cruised highways near the Southern California desert communities of Palmdale and Lancaster, responding to accidents and arresting drunken drivers or others impaired by substances ranging from booze to prescription drugs to hard narcotics.

Lackey long opposed marijuana legalization, including California’s adult-use initiative last year. He saw cannabis as just one more intoxicant that could make the roads less safe.

These days, Lackey, 58, is a Republican State Assemblyman, elected in 2014 and lauded by the California Police Chiefs Association two years later as its “Legislator of the Year” for his advocacy of measures to combat drugged driving.

Lackey’s bill would make CHP responsible for keeping cannabis in-state.

He is now sponsoring legislation that would empower his former agency – the California Highway Patrol – to lead state law enforcement efforts against unlicensed cannabis traffickers shipping millions of tons out of California on interstate highways.

But Lackey’s story isn’t just a predicable tale of another tough-on-cannabis cop.

For starters, he’s no die-hard prohibitionist. In fact, Lackey is emerging in Sacramento as the state’s go-to-Republican on cannabis policy in a deep-blue state with America’s largest marijuana economy.

Even as Lackey advances a plan to target illicit traffickers, he’s evolved into an ebullient advocate for a state-regulated cannabis economy.

That’s largely due to an epiphany Lackey experienced a few years ago, when the wife of his longtime CHP patrol partner battled cancer.

‘I Became a Believer’

“My perspective changed because I had a personal friend who had her third battle with breast cancer and she had a real need for medical marijuana,” Lackey said in a recent interview. “There are people who have the need for the unique things that cannabis brings. I wasn’t a believer. I became a believer.”

'Without this structure in place, it's advantage black marketers. Clearly, we need to wake up.’

In July, Lackey penned an opinion piece for The Hill, Washington DC’s political outlet, arguing against federal interference in state-regulated cannabis economies.

He touted his work representing law enforcement agencies while helping craft the package of state medical marijuana regulations signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2015. Those MMJ regulations, which are being woven into the state’s new regulatory framework, are scheduled to take effect in early 2018. “If done thoughtfully and deliberately, the public safety benefits of a well-regulated cannabis market could work well in states across the nation,” Lackey wrote.

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He also endorsed the tax revenue benefits of “sensible cannabis policy reform.”

“Protecting California’s right to regulate a legal cannabis industry within our borders,” he wrote, “is not a ‘red or blue’ issue.”

Keeping Cannabis in California

In September, at the close of California’s 2017 legislative session, Lackey introduced Assembly Bill 1733. The bill, still light on details and due to be reintroduced in January, is based on Lackey’s belief that California Highway Patrol officers policing interstate highways have a role to play in protecting intrastate commerce.

Lackey's bill matters because California grows four times as much cannabis as it consumes. A crackdown on that out-of-state diversion is likely coming.

The measure would direct the CHP and patrol officers operating out of 102 California field offices to coordinate with state and local law enforcement agencies to target out-bound shipments of marijuana from traffickers with little interest in complying with a state-regulated market.

His bill also calls for law enforcement collaboration in identifying potentially illicit transportation of cannabis that crosses county lines in California without state or local license under the regulated industry.

“Without this structure in place,” Lackey said, “it’s advantage black marketers. Clearly, we need to wake up.”

20% Stays, 80% Leaves the State

California’s farms have long been renowned for shipping cannabis across America as illicit operators seek maximum profits from inflated street prices in states with strict marijuana prohibition or tighter restrictions on permitted cannabis sales.

Khurshid Khoja: Shrinking black market helps licensed growers.

In January, an economic study commissioned by the state Department of Food and Agriculture estimated that California residents consume 2.5 million pounds of cannabis annually. The report said that’s less than one-fifth of the state’s estimated 13.5 million pounds in total production, meaning that more than 80 percent may be headed elsewhere.

Lackey said a coordinated law enforcement effort, with the CHP directing efforts to share information between police agencies, is needed to protect legal operators, California’s tax revenues and public safety. He also says he doesn’t want the Justice Department, under anti-cannabis Attorney General Jeff Sessions, to exploit black market trafficking as an excuse to target California’s legal market.

“Unless we can convince the federal government that we’re doing our due diligence, we’re asking for problems,” he said.

Growers Are Considering the Bill

Cannabis advocates are cautiously mulling whether to support his bill on grounds that improving inter-agency police communications could stop wrongful raids on state- and locally-permitted cannabis operators.

Last summer, the California Growers Association industry group complained over the lack of information sharing after armed game wardens for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife raided cannabis farms in the north coast Emerald Triangle that were in the process of obtaining local cultivation and state water permits.

Lackey recognizes that cannabis is not like alcohol, and considers CBD 'a real blessing' for medical patients.

“There is nobody really going after this (black market) activity in a strategic manner,” said Hezekiah Allen, a former Humboldt County cannabis farmer who is executive of director of the California Growers Association. “From our perspective there is one word that makes this bill palatable – collaborate – because already this year we have seen people in… permitting programs subjected to paramilitary raids.

“We’re not quite ready to have an opinion on this bill. But we are interested in guidance on what law enforcement may look like in the age of regulation.”

Attorney Khurshid Khoja, a board member for the California Cannabis Industry Association, wants more details on Lackey’s proposal and his organization hasn’t taken a position. But he is also cautiously intrigued.

“Anything that helps to curb the black market is a boon to licensing taxpaying businesses,” Khoja said.

Meanwhile, John Lovell, a lobbyist for the California Narcotics Officers Association, said the organization supports the bill. He says the CHP-coordinated effort could identify businesses that pose as compliant state operators while secretly diverting cannabis into the illicit market.

“You’re going to have people using the cover of their license to in effect ship out of state,” Lovell warned.

‘I Want to ID Impairment, Not Use’

For his part, Lackey said, the bill needs to be negotiated and built-out in the upcoming session. It currently provides no additional funding for the black-market enforcement push and lacks details on how police coordination would work.

Last summer, Lackey also introduced legislation that, if resurrected next year, could appoint the state’s highway patrol commissioner to head a task force on identifying field testing techniques to detect drugged driving, including for cannabis.

Lackey supports research into saliva-testing technology that can detect THC. But he also expresses concerns over whether the test results may determine actual impairment, not just residues in the body. He calls for more thorough study.

“Cannabis is different,” Lackey said. “It’s not like alcohol. I want to identify impairment – in bold letters – vs. simple usage.”

On a personal level, Lackey admits he hasn’t a clue as to what impairment may feel like. He neither drinks nor expects to try cannabis anytime soon.

But he has come something of a cannabis student. He says he reads up on the medicinal benefits of non-intoxicating cannabis CBD, “a real blessing,” he calls it. He eagerly shares the story of the wife of his former patrol partner finding relief through marijuana.

And he expects to stay involved in cannabis-related legislation as California’s regulated market matures.

“There are some people who hear the word ‘cannabis’ and want to run away,” Lackey said. “It’s one of those issues we need to understand. So we’ve got work to do.”

“I may never consume it. But it’s kind of habit forming for me in a different way.”

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Peter Hecht
Peter Hecht
Peter Hecht, former political writer and Los Angeles bureau chief for the Sacramento Bee, has been reporting on cannabis since 2009. His coverage has been honored for explanatory reporting in the "Best of the West" journalism awards and earned an Excellence in Journalism prize from the Northern California Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Hecht is the author of the book “Weed Land: Inside America’s Marijuana Epicenter and How Pot Went Legit.”
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