In January 2006, Jesse Stout '12, then a senior at Brown University, stood in the gallery of the Rhode Island statehouse waiting for legislators to decide whether to legalize medical cannabis. He was surrounded by the patients, caregivers and activists he'd worked with for four years to advocate for the law. When a supermajority voted to override the governor's veto, he spent the first minute cheering and hugging people. The next minute, he thought: “Now what?”
Stout has been working to answer that question ever since, and the latest step is a year-long appointment to San Francisco's Cannabis State Legalization Task Force. Starting in January, the 22-member body began proposing local regulations for the cannabis industry in advance of California's expected legalization of cannabis for adult use in November.
“The idea that our city wants to proactively plan how to improve upon a voter initiative is very exciting to me, both intellectually and professionally,” said Stout, who advises cannabis companies as a lawyer at San Francisco-based Greenbridge Corporate Counsel. “It's a unique historic milestone.”
On the task force, Stout plans to push for zoning to disperse retail sites across the city and taxes on adult use cannabis to subsidize access for medical users.
“I'd like our task force to steer San Francisco to rationally embrace adult use of cannabis. We can actually regulate what's going to happen either way and benefit by levying taxes for social programs,” he said.
Stout has worked on drug reform issues since he was a freshman studying English at Brown. He cofounded the university's chapter of Students for Sensible Drug Policy, after meeting a multiple sclerosis patient who feared going to jail if she followed her doctor's advice to try medical cannabis. Soon he was organizing constituents, planning Rhode Island's first medical cannabis conference and working with legislators to successfully advocate for legalization — all before finishing undergrad.
After graduating in 2006, he spent three years as executive director of the Rhode Island Patient Advocacy Coalition, a nonprofit he cofounded to organize patients, educate the public and advocate further reform. Eventually, he realized law school was the next step.
“The interaction patients would have with statutory interpretation bothered me,” he said. “I was really happy to help people in the legislature and the media, but it really bothered me that I couldn’t also help people in court.”
At UC Hastings, Stout cofounded another chapter of Students for Sensible Drug Policy. He interned with public defenders in San Francisco, Marin and San Diego and with the California State Assembly's Public Safety Committee.
“I got a better appreciation for the personal impact of criminal laws. I wanted to go back to policy work so I could change laws so that fewer people would go to jail in the first place,” Stout said.
After graduating from law school in 2012, Stout spent two years as policy director for Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, where he organized formerly incarcerated people to influence the legislative process. Concurrently, he started advising cannabis companies as an attorney with Greenbridge Corporate Counsel. In 2015, he moved to private practice full time.
“To be able to advise the new wave of corporations that will be involved in the legal industry to be socially responsible and engaged in their communities is a really exciting opportunity for me,” he said.
In the long term, Stout says he plans to work toward regulatory reform for other illegal substances with medicinal benefits, such as psilocybin.
“I want to prevent incarceration. It will always be better to regulate an activity such as drug possession instead of criminalizing it. The system of regulation provides social controls to be able to incentivize good behavior and disincentivize bad behavior,” he said.
A law degree has been a critical tool in enabling him as an advocate.
“I'm able to be part of the regulatory system and influence it instead of just having opinions,” Stout said. “And I'm able to more directly participate in the industry by advising real clients on how their work can help people."