Before the 2016 presidential election catapulted Jessa Lewis into politics, she was an involved member of Washington state’s legal cannabis industry. She’d worked as general manager of retailer Dockside’s first Seattle-area retail store and, later, on the production side for brands Circanna and Nectar. But after serving as media coordinator for Bernie Sanders’ Washington state delegation, she found herself drawn to the work. She’s now running for state Senate, promising to be a friend to the legal cannabis industry.
“I don’t know of anyone who has run and has been open about it and has the background I have.”
She’s running as a Democrat in the state’s Sixth District, hoping to replace anti-cannabis Republican Mark Baumgartner, who recently vacated the seat. Her opponent is Republican state Rep. Jeff Holy, a former vice cop. The race is on state and national watch lists as one of five Republican-held state Senate districts considered to have a high likelihood of a Democratic victory.
Leafly caught up with Lewis to ask about her transition from cannabis to politics, how her background in the industry has affected her campaign, and what she plans to do if she wins. Here’s an edited transcript of the conversation:
Leafly: When we first met, you were very much in the cannabis industry, working for companies like Dockside and Nectar. At some point you transitioned to politics, and now you’re running. How did all that happen?
Jessa Lewis: I had left Dockside Cannabis for an opportunity to grow in the field and see the other side of it—from the processor’s side. I wanted to understand all of [the legal cannabis industry] a little bit more holistically. I really enjoyed helping to launch Dockside’s brand, and I wanted to have a chance to be in charge and have a little bit more of a seat at the table in driving the industry forward.
What was particularly interesting to me was seeing it mature and opening it up to new audiences. At Dockside, we had focused largely on the boomer and soccer mom/female demographic, and I saw that being one of the keys to making it more mainstream and acceptable. If you make it where soccer moms are comfortable smoking cannabis, then it loses that stigma.
In 2016 I got pulled in very strongly to Bernie Sanders’ campaign, and I found myself less interested in my cannabis work. When I woke up in the morning, what I wanted to work on that morning was addressing the issues that Bernie was talking about, as far as economic inequality and health care.
It was a really politically electric time!
It was intoxicating. And I found myself in a leadership position in the state and then also nationally with our delegation. I was the one sending out the talking points and the media trainings, and then I found myself as the grassroots media coordinator for the entire delegation.
I became interested in the issues. Cannabis was just kind of a subset of the bigger issues I was passionate about, like health care. That’s what I’m doing for a day job now; I’m the Eastern Washington director of Healthcare for All. We got really close to passing a single-payer bill, and were literally a vote shy in the [state] Senate.
Is that your top priority if and when you win the seat?
“The war on drugs hasn’t worked, we’re spending so much money housing people, and then once they get it out it’s impossible for them to find a place to live or work.”
When you decided to announce, was there any consternation or worry about having worked in cannabis?
The fact that I’m a single mom is going to come up. Maybe the fact that I’ve got student loan debt. One of the things I thought that they may end up attacking me on was the fact that I have worked in the cannabis industry. Because I haven’t seen—outside of a City Council member here in Spokane who I believe has a Tier II grow license—anyone in elected office that was involved in cannabis before they ran.
What is your opponent’s stance on cannabis?
He comes from a more rule-of-law perspective, and I thought that’s something he would hit me on. But what’s interesting is the acceptance of the cannabis industry. [People are] realizing the tax dollars, the crime and harm reduction, the value to the local economy. It seems like with Boehner getting involved, we’ve kind of turned a corner.
So it’s not like, “Oh, she’s scary, she smokes pot, lock her up”? It’s more like you’re a businesswoman who has worked for a lot of reputable companies?
In a legal industry.
Do you feel like your campaign is kind of a referendum on whether or not people are OK with it?
Well, we’re going to find out. I don’t know of anyone who has run and has been open about it and has the background I have. I’m not running with cannabis as a primary plank of my platform, because I’m looking more at the kitchen table issues of jobs, education, and health care. But under jobs, there’s quite a few [cannabis] farms in the area, and it has definitely been a great tax-raiser for our state.
Having been in the industry, you’ve had a front-row seat for some of the regulatory and legislative issues over the years. Is there anything in particular you’d change if you won?
I know banking has been a huge concern. While I’m looking at a state bank as a way to keep our money in the state, and to bond against it for major infrastructure projects, it’s also a way that we can address the lack of banking access for the cannabis industry.
Would you support the state overruling local bans and moratoria on the commercial industry? To kind of give the farmers, many of whom are sitting on surplus, a pressure valve?
I think that’s something we need to explore.
What about criminal justice reform? Do you support amnesty for nonviolent cannabis convictions at the state level?
Absolutely. The applications of these laws have been so inherently racist. The war on drugs hasn’t worked, we’re spending so much money housing people, and then once they get it out it’s impossible for them to find a place to live or work. That’s not making people safer. That’s mismanagement of taxpayer money.
Your opponent is a former vice cop, so it’s safe to say he might not agree. Has he raised the issue at all?
Not yet, but I also haven’t taken a public stance on it yet.
I was going to say, it’s not prominently featured on the website. Is doing this interview your way of coming out, kind of?
I’m coming out of the garden!
Do you still partake?
I’d imagine it’s hard to find time as a candidate.
I don’t really have the time, but it’s occasionally nice as a de-stressor. Like, I’ll have a [cannabis-infused] chocolate at the end of the day or if I take a weekend day off. But it’s the same as drinking. I don’t drink much now. I forget, in all honesty, because I’m pushing so hard on the campaign. Like, Oh yeah, I still have a vape pen.