A rising star in California politics and a leading voice for the millennial generation, Assemblymember Evan Low has made a name for himself advocating on behalf of passing cannabis legislation and expanding the tech world’s influence to improve Silicon Valley.
The 36-year-old lawmaker from California’s 28th district is currently serving his third term, but has been in politics for more than 13 years, following his time as mayor of Campbell. Openly gay and Asian-American, Low is fiercely unapologetic about his stances on anti-discrimination towards members of the LGBTQ community.
And his pro-cannabis position puts him at odds with other local Asian-American lawmakers who have historically opposed legalization efforts, despite touting themselves as progressives.
In an exclusive interview with San José Spotlight, Low outlined some of his biggest priorities — issues related to cannabis, following its legalization in 2016, the influence of big tech on our everyday lives, and the environment — while also weighing a potential 2024 presidential bid.
His answers have been lightly edited for clarity.
Q: I read about your work on cannabis and recently calling for Apple CEO Tim Cook to remove the restriction against cannabis sales on the company’s app store. Why care so much about cannabis?
A: The committee that I chair is called Business and Professions — it’s the committee that oversees the Department of Consumer Affairs in which cannabis issues come up. We oversee anything with consumer protections and ensuring that consumers are not duped. Cannabis is such a large issue area right now, over 75 percent of cities in the state of California prohibit
s any type of retail cannabis — and yet we know that it’s a booming industry.
So what is the public’s interest in this? Well, we have a flourishing black market that exists and we don’t want that — we want an individual to come into the regulated market. But what are the unique challenges that exist? Well, in the regulated market, taxation is close to 45 percent and you still have uncertainties with state and federal regulations.
In other words, this is still a Schedule 1 drug, so the feds could, in theory, still come in and have raids. There’s no cannabis banking, because they’re still Schedule 1, so for now it’s an all cash business. How do we make sure that as a state — because it’s legal now — we have a regulatory marketplace that works for those good actors that are paying taxes and providing jobs who want to make sure that their products have quality control that the black market doesn’t have so that consumers are safe and comfortable? There’s still such great uncertainty and we’re the largest market in the nation, so people are looking to us. We can’t just turn
our away from it. If we have it and it’s legal, let’s make sure the framework is correct.
Q: What are the policy initiatives you have to address these concerns: The black market, lack of banking and differences between state and federal rules?
A: I passed a resolution with bipartisan support last year, where the state of California will not work with the feds in respect to cannabis. We’ve codified that.
I introduced a bill, unfortunately that failed, because the science is not there yet, based on the definition of impairment. We want to make sure that individuals are safe. We want to help empower law enforcement to determine the definition of impairment and how to measure THC levels within individuals. We are partnering with the the California treasurer on cannabis banking.
If federal banking doesn’t allow it, are we able to come up with a new mechanism so that we have cannabis businesses that might be able to utilize those resources at the state level? We need cannabis licenses, control and safe packaging still for cannabis products — there’s a lot of things that still need to happen but that’s why it’s so important to get it right now. We don’t want the black market to thrive and succeed.
Q: How do you break from other Asian-American lawmakers on this issue, who claim to be progressive but vote “no” on cannabis?
A: Cannabis is legal in the state of California, so whatever your position is, the fact of the matter is that it’s legal. So now that it’s legal, we need to make sure that we have the protections in place to make it work versus taking a blind eye and saying ‘I don’t want to support it because it doesn’t affect me.’ People are smoking, utilizing and consuming cannabis in a city (in California) whether it’s allowed or not. I still feel there’s significant stigma.
This is a crisis right now. People tell me all of the time how problematic this is. Let’s talk about how other substances are regulated. Alcohol — do we acknowledge as a society that alcohol kills people? Yes. Do we have facts that determine if someone has overdosed on cannabis, or if someone could get a DUI from smoking cannabis? No, but there are impacts. If we said alcohol is OK with certain regulations, then what about cannabis?
Q: Have you gotten pushback from other lawmakers?
A: Oh yes. There’s a wide variety of opinions on this. My perspective is different from others from a different generation. But even if you do not support cannabis, it’s legal so we have an obligation to protect people.
Q: In Silicon Valley, we’re always talking about the negative and positive consequences that big tech companies have on the region. How do we keep big tech accountable?
A: Technology and innovation has enhanced our daily lives and we want to keep them homegrown in California. At the same time, let’s recognize some of the unique challenges that have been created by this, such as the housing crisis. We need to support innovation, while also holding them equally accountable.
That’s why we have passed bills that look at their corporate boards, making sure that we have a wide variety of diversity, that a certain percentage consist of women. We have new programs that teach girls to code, including them in the fields of science, mathematics and technology. We have some of the most valuable companies in the world here and yet they’ve created concerns with housing and traffic. So what is their investment and responsibility in the community? We have passed legislation to tax these companies to make sure they’re paying their fair share.
Q: Should there be stronger policies that begin to address the role that these technology products have in our lives with concerns about security, privacy and transparency?
A: We cannot leave tech unchecked. We must engage with them. We as government don’t catch up as quickly. Some of these issues with privacy, we didn’t know were happening. When we sign up for an app or an account, there’s a long disclosure agreement and no one reads it and you just agree. Then all of a sudden you’re searching for shoes online and you go off that webpage and you’re advertised shoes on a different website. That’s really weird.
We need to be informed on this through accountability, and the right transparency so that the relationship between the consumer and company is well known. If you’re going to tailor your product to us, we should know about that. Data and information about us is the newest value, but we need to make sure we know what’s going on.
Q: While there is significant affluence in the region because of the tech boom, there’s also extreme homelessness and a massive housing crisis. What are we not doing enough of to address these problems?
A: We need courageous approaches, not incremental. Cities are not building enough housing. This housing crisis is not a completely enigma, we know what the problem is–supply and demand. That’s why we need to build more. We need to build higher. I was born and raised in this community and I cannot afford to live in this community. What is our obligation as millennials to hold previous generations accountable that have screwed this up for us? We need bold, creative ideas. A crisis requires significant change. I was a co-author on SB 50, which is a bill that will help facilitate and expedite housing developments around transit corridors. Cities don’t like it because you’re taking away their local control, and I understand that but I’m okay with it because what is the other solution? Because those haven’t worked for the past two decades. If you don’t have anything controversial, you’re not going to make any kind of change.
Q: What do you think is the biggest challenge that we’re facing as a region?
A: The environment is the biggest challenge. These fires in our state are devastating, and this is the new normal. Our generation has to lead the way to make systemic change. That’s why I have a bill to lower the voting age to 17, to allow younger generations to participate and have a say in their future.
Q: There have been rumors about a potential presidential bid. Have you thought about running for president in 2024?
A: I ask myself all of the time — what am I doing? This is so not what I was supposed to do. My father is an optometrist. Like a good Chinese boy, I’m supposed to become a doctor, a lawyer or an engineer, right? My family doesn’t like that I’m in politics, they wanted a more traditional, safe route for me. But let me tell you this — when you turn on the TV and see what’s going on, how do you not get involved?
When there is an absence of leadership, where children are dying from senseless firearms, people in places of worship are being killed, there’s an attack on women, there’s a Muslim ban and yet where’s the leadership? We’re in pride month, yet in 25 plus states, you can still be fired for being gay. I still cannot donate blood. How is it possible that we don’t get involved? I’m very passionate about the work we still must do. My heart keeps me in it.
Contact Nadia Lopez at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow @n_llopez on Twitter.