.Upfront: Into the weeds

Navigating the politics of pot legalization

by Tom Gogola

A state cannabis commission headed by Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom will issue its final report July 7, a key date along the road to an expected referendum for the legalization of recreational marijuana on the 2016 California ballot.

July 7 also marks the soft filing deadline set by state Attorney General Kamala Harris’ office to give the state enough time to vet qualifying signatures for voter initiatives.

The double sevens were not good news for ReformCA, a legalization advocacy coalition whose member groups range from the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) to the NAACP.

The group hasn’t filed yet because it wants to absorb the commission’s report to make sure its initiative was in sync with its findings. Now the groups says that it will have to spend more money to get its signatures verified.

The timing suggests that several delicate dynamics are at play as the state rolls toward 2016: The Blue Ribbon Commission (BRC), and Newsom, can’t favor, or appear to favor, one of several legalization initiatives over another—especially when the commission isn’t itself pro-legalization, even if Newsom is.

Nor can the commission create an appearance that it is coordinating its efforts with ReformCA, even if ReformCA tried to coordinate its efforts with the BRC’s report.

ReformCA pledged to take the commission’s findings into account before writing its initiative in hopes of greater buy-in from voters. But the commission has a timetable of its own.

ReformCA was waiting on the commission report to get input from legalization opponents such as the California Police Chiefs Association. Also high on the list: What to do about cannabis users who are on probation, and those Emerald Triangle mom-and-pop growers anxiously awaiting their fate. Newsom met Humboldt County growers last month to hear their concerns.

“We’d be foolhardy to not understand perspectives of other communities that we may not have had access too, who came out of the woodwork on behalf of the lieutenant governor,” said Dale Sky Jones, who chairs ReformCA and teaches at Oaksterdam University in Oakland, a cannabis cultivation school.

“This is why we are waiting for the [commission],” she says. In anticipation of the deadline, ReformCA had set “an ideal drop-dead date” of July 6 to file its initiative, Jone says.

The cannabis activist says that she understands the commission’s delicate position, given that Californians “don’t want to feel that [legalization] is being pushed down their throats.”

The July 7 filing deadline is tied to verification measures used to certify signatures needed to petition for a proposition. The “full check” system goes beyond random sampling and requires that California’s secretary of state direct county elections officials to verify every signature on the petition.

Harris’ office could not comment on any of the pending initiatives. Press secretary Kristin Ford told this reporter via email that “the AG looks forward to reviewing the findings of the commission.”

Harris is a candidate for Barbara Boxer’s Senate seat in 2016 and has to walk a fine line here, too. Harris’ spokesperson reiterated a previously reported position that she’s not “morally opposed to the legalization of marijuana. But as the state’s top law enforcement officer, it is important to address issues that impact public safety in a thoughtful manner.”

Harris’ work extends to other states that have gone legal.

“Our dialogue with Washington and Colorado has yielded some important avenues to explore and understand further, like edibles and packaging,” Ford wrote.

The unfolding politics of ending prohibition in California seem to go as follows: There are very real concerns over a 2016 presidential election gone bad—Bush III backlash, anyone? Boxer’s seat is up for grabs. There’s an ambitious lieutenant governor who says that he would support an initiative, “provided it is the ‘right one,’” as ReformCA points out on its website.

Meanwhile, several legalization initiatives have already been filed with the attorney general—including one from Sebastopol cannabis lawyer Omar Figueroa—but ReformCA has been tuned in to the commission’s work this spring as it sought to establish itself as the most serious coalition. How serious? ReformCA put Howard Dean campaign guru Joe Trippi on its payroll two years ago and is treating the legalization referendum as a “national issue,” Jones says.

Jones says that she started to push Newsom “once [the BRC] was announced” and at every opportunity, “I asked him to turn it the hell up!”

“I’m probably driving the lieutenant governor insane,” she says with a laugh. “Every time I see him, I tell him, ‘Hurry up—you’re going too slow.’”

The commission’s general outlook on legalization? Not so fast.

The forthcoming white paper follows a trio of public forums held this spring that emphasized public safety, youth issues and the tangled web of banking and taxation, says Abdi Soltani, a member of the BRC steering committee.

Soltani, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, says that the report, 18 months in the making, will distill the findings and highlight challenges and options California faces as it moves toward the expected 2016 vote. It’s not a referendum on the referendum, he says, which is to say that the commission isn’t endorsing a pro-legalization regime.

“We wanted to gather people who would be thoughtful about what is it that has to be thought through if the state goes forward,” he says. “But there is nothing inevitable about anything. In the end, the voters will make the decision.”

Pressed for details on what the report might offer, Soltani stressed fairness and transparency. “After July 7, we’ll be in a position to get on an equal-opportunity basis with all interested parties,” he says, “and we’ll share this with the public.”

Given the size of California, the order of magnitude is much greater here than in states that have legalized recreational cannabis, such as Colorado or Washington. “The biggest factor that presents the biggest challenge is that we would still be dealing with the federal prohibition,” Soltani says. “I don’t think we’ll come out of this process claiming to know everything. It’s a long road. How do you transition from a system that’s prohibition to a system that’s legal? There will be course corrections and new regulations along the way, and we have to take a long view.”

Jones says that she’ll press on with the work of gathering signatures and raising money. “The fact that they are coming in on July 7 when the ideal drop date is July 6 is going to make it more expensive,” she says.

Jones says a referendum will cost between $4 million and $6 million: That’s for getting all the required signatures, and getting the vote out in November 2016. But she says “the goal we are shooting for is $10 [million] to $20 million.”

To qualify for the ballot, the group must gather 585,000 signatures—8 percent of the electorate in the 2014 gubernatorial election. Most of the fundraising, Jones says, would go for big media buys, which are contingent on two unknowns at the present: “Who is going to be president, and how much opposition to legalization is going to be mustered in the state.”

Jones says that she is treating cannabis not as an issue but as a national candidate in 2016. It’s a full-on hearts-and-minds campaign.

“Cannabis—you know her,” Jones says. “You’ve had experiences, and you feel like you know Mary Jane already.”


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