It was a bright, sunny summer day in Oakland, and the air outside the downtown Marriott City Center hotel was fragrant with — ahem — opportunity.
Inside the hotel’s massive banquet hall, thousands of besuited pot-industry people packed the seats, aisles, and walls to hear Gavin Newsom deliver a keynote address. The lieutenant governor is also the highest-ranking California official to ever embrace the cannabis-users-rights movement. But he didn’t come to honor the National Cannabis Industry Association.
He came to give it a cold shower.
Newsom warned that although Proposition 64, this fall’s ballot initiative that would legalize adult use of marijuana, has numerous supporters, it also boasts many influential detractors — even among medical-marijuana activists.
“It’s not a done deal by any stretch of the imagination,” he told the room. “If any of you think this thing is done in California, you couldn’t be more wrong.”
You could hear a bud drop.
For instance, the former San Francisco mayor, who is a father of four, told the audience that even his wife is against legalization.
And he reminded cannabis folks that California both trails the rest of the nation on making pot legal and also isn’t as progressive as people think. “Remember, it was just a few years ago voters rejected legalization. Remember, they passed [gay-marriage ban] Prop. 8 in California not that long ago” as well, he said.
Most recent polling shows unprecedented support for legalization and Prop. 64. A Field Poll/Institute for Governmental Studies survey from late September notched backing for the measure at 60 percent, with just 31 percent opposed and the rest undecided.
Does this mean pot is poised to finally break free after years of prohibition and criminalization? Or will there be some kind of weed wild card during this final month before Election Day?
Let’s not under-estimate the opposition: prohibitionists, powerful GOP benefactors, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, editorial boards at the likes of the McClatchy Co., stoners against legalization — plus the usual social mix of conservatives, soccer moms, and law-enforcement types, who will line up against pot on November 8. California is a state of 38 million people — more than seven-times as big as Colorado — and it’s radically more diverse.
Perhaps Newsom, in front of the legalization proponents at the Oakland event, put it best:
“Do not take California for granted.”
Fear of Failure
Several industry experts this writer spoke with for this story echoed Newsom’s remarks: What is public enemy No. 1 for cannabis reform?
Consider data presented by Roger Morgan, the director of the Coalition for a Drug Free California and No on 64 leader. Even though some 60 percent of Californians purportedly support Prop. 64, he noted at an event in San Francisco this past summer that 83 percent of California cities and counties have banned medical pot cultivation.
In other words, most local governments are not stoked about legal weed.
“My belief is it’s not going to pass,” he said at the Q-and-A session on July 24 at the San Francisco Commonwealth Club. “We fought this battle four years ago with Prop. 19.”
Morgan also said he was trying to access $50 million in federal anti-drug funding to spread the message to parents and teachers that “the human brain is permanently damaged” by marijuana.
“We don’t grow any other crops that basically poison people,” he said. “I think it’s insanity.”
His No on 64 contingent also will get billions of additional dollars in free institutional support from some unions, law-enforcement groups, and local and state lawmakers. This robust opposition, combined with other electoral factors, suggests that the ballot measure could very well fail despite favorable pre-election polling.
And there are other fears that keep some of America’s leading cannabis-law reformers up at night.
Marijuana Policy Project director Rob Kampia, for instance, is worried about Nevada, Arizona — and Donald Trump.
Back at the Marriott hotel this summer, Kampia rattled off how all nine legalization campaigns nationwide are underfunded.
The eight committees that back Prop. 64, for example, have reported more than $27 million in campaign contributions so far this year (through the last week of September), according to the secretary of state’s website. Some of this money may be shuffling between committees, however. And while this sounds like a lot — but, as a comparison, the cigarette lobby has raked in more than $56 million this year to fight Proposition 56.
By and large, advocacy groups and wealthy philanthropists have chipped in to fund Prop. 64, but the cannabis industry and its consumers have barely contributed.
“California polling is good, but we can’t take anything for granted,” Kampia told the audience of industry members.
He also pointed out that, in California, there’s a track record of real money being raised for the opposition. “The last several election cycles — for marijuana legalization or criminal-justice reform — did see various wealthy interests opposing reform,” he explained.
But so far this year, the two committees opposed to 64 have raised just under $2 million.
Still, an anti-pot contingent looms, including former gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman, Feinstein, some American Indian tribes, and “always the police establishment and prison guards’ union,” Kampia said. “The owner of the San Diego Chargers opposed us in 1996,” as well.
And the editorial boards at McClatchy Co. newspapers, which owns The Sacramento Bee and The Fresno Bee, recently endorsed “no” on Prop. 64.
In Nevada, legalization is threatened by casino magnate and Republican super-donor Sheldon Adelson, who used his fortune to deny Floridians medical-marijuana in 2014. He also bought a Las Vegas newspaper that subsequently switched from supporting legalization to opposing it.
MPP is planning muscular ad buys in Nevada and Arizona, where legalization is on the ballot, to immunize voters to an Adelson-funded scare campaign.
The same type of anti-weed fear mongering could be coming to California, too.
“There is going to be money for the opposition. We just don’t know how much. Please don’t be complacent in California,” Kampia urged.
A large infusion from one wealthy Republican donor could sink Prop. 64, warned anti-legalization leader Kevin Sabet, with Smart Approaches to Marijuana. “I think [Prop. 64 is] vulnerable, given how spread thin the legalization movement is nationwide,” he said.
It’s also worth noting that the “no” side has to raise a fraction of the money of the “yes” team. Their campaign only needs to peel off just enough swing voters to ensure a defeat, experts explained.
“If the opponents raise 25 percent of the funds that the pro side has, I would put it at 80 percent chance of going down,” Sabet argued.
According to a No on 64 poll conducted by SmithJohnson Research this past August, support for the initiative drops from 61 percent to 40 percent after voters view one negative TV advertisement.
National forces are at work in the election, too. Kampia explained how, big picture, a Trump presidency might lead to Chris Christie as attorney general. He would surely end the federal cease-fire on pot and send the industry back into the shadows; Christie publicly opposes medical cannabis and adult-use legalization.
Even the mere presence of Trump on the ballot promises to distort the pot-legalization vote, watchers say. On one hand, Trump promises to drive out progressive voters and depress core conservative turnout, which should be good for weed. But Trump’s racist, xenophobic stance on immigration has galvanized California’s vast ranks of Latinos, who are going to turn out in droves to vote against mass deportations and the building of a border wall.
And, according to polls, older Latino voters are among legalization’s biggest foes.
Stoners Against Legalization
And there are even more challenges.
Some view Prop. 64 as a statewide tax bonanza, with an estimated $1 billion in annual revenue.
Others see a ploy by multinational corporations to take over legal weed — even though specific language in the measure and federal prohibition keeps big business out and prevents pot monopolies.
In addition to legalizing adult use, Prop. 64 would decrease or eliminate a host of marijuana-related penalties, and designate state agencies to license and regulate the industry.
It also would impose a state excise tax of 15 percent on retail pot sales, and a cultivation tax of $9.25 per ounce of flowers and $2.75 per ounces of leaves. It exempts medical pot from some taxation.
And more: Prop. 64 would establish packaging, labeling, advertising, and marketing standards and restrictions for marijuana products. And it prohibits marketing and advertising marijuana directly to minors.
Revenue from pot would go toward economic development in communities impacted by prohibition, law-enforcement training for “drugged” drivers, medical research, teen drug prevention, and environmental protections due to cultivation. And, yes, cops.
No on 64 groups also are saying that the ballot measure would: result in an uptick in accidents and crime, including more highway fatalities and impaired driving; allow marijuana growing near schools and parks; erode local control; increase black market and drug cartel activity; allow marijuana-smoking advertisements to be aired on TV and radio; and hurt underprivileged neighborhoods.
Morgan even invoked the “gateway” theory: “It all starts with marijuana,” he said. “About 99 percent of people who went on to other drugs started with marijuana. If you want to stop the opiate problem, you got to go back and stop the marijuana problem.”
His litany of marijuana complaints is lengthy. “There’s a tremendous link between marijuana use and schizophrenia. Mental illness will ruin your life,” Morgan said. “[Pot] also causes mutations to sperm and chromosomal abnormalities.”
Morgan is calling for a return to the past.
“I think we need to renew our vows to America,” he said. “I don’t think you can say ‘[The war on drugs] has been a failure.’
“I think it’s a failure of leadership.”
And there remain two wild card threats to Prop. 64’s winning on November 8.
The first is turning out the youth vote — in an election where each presidential candidate has some of the lowest favorability ratings ever.
And this mass of young voters often thinks legalization is a done deal, so much so that they don’t have to show up in November, operatives say. For example, rapper Wiz Khalifa — who supports Prop. 64 and lives in Los Angeles — told this writer in a recent interview for Cannabis Now magazine that he wouldn’t be voting for legalization this year.
Khalifa’s not the only one who may let apathy decide marijuana’s future in California.
If Prop. 64 is a tight contest, it could come down to get-out-the-vote small ball: college students who forget to register in their new town, or people who miss the registration deadline or skip voting day.
But, more significantly, there’s the die-hard and influential cannabis-industry insiders who hate Prop. 64.
So far, the most notable anti-legalization rally held in the state didn’t occur in a rural suburb, and it wasn’t led by police, soccer moms, and pastors. The rally happened in Santa Cruz, this past July, and it was organized by a smattering of the movement’s own, including medical-marijuana figure Dennis Peron, who co-authored Proposition 215, which legalized medical pot.
For a variety of reasons, many hardcore marijuana-law reformers are actively campaigning against Prop. 64. Some say it is partially sour grapes; almost a dozen other initiatives failed to make the ballot, after support coalesced around what’s now called the Adult Use of Marijuana Act.
Several activists dislike the initial limits of one ounce on flowers, four grams of hash, and six-plants in private gardens, and (incorrectly) think Prop. 64 infringes on Prop. 215 rights.
Some the most ardent stoners against legalization tend to be motivated by sheer self-interest.
“I’m sorry, I’m going to vote no. I’m against legalization,” one lifelong grower in Grass Valley told this writer during an August radio call-in segment on KQED’s Forum. He explained he was afraid of what taxes and regulations will do to his livelihood.
Others share his concerns. About half of the members of the California Growers Association are opposed to legalization, said director Hezekiah Allen. California Cannabis Industry Association executive director Nate Bradley said plenty in his group would prefer to not pay taxes or follow regulations, too, if possible.
The lieutenant governor even copped to the measure’s limitations. “The initiative is not perfect. God knows it’s not perfect,” Newsom said. “It’s extraordinary that we even got one initiative on the ballot.”
He said “one of smartest things” the minds behind Prop. 64 did was to draft initiative language that allows for the Legislature to make fixes to it after the vote. “We will make fixes. We will adjust,” Newsom assured.
That legislative flexibility, however, triggers fears about a post-legalization takeover by corporate weed.
Also dragging down the vote is that plenty in this camp — and around the world — think California has already legalized marijuana.
When someone can get a medical-pot card at Amoeba Music on Haight Street, then order buds to that street corner in fifteen minutes using the Eaze app on a smartphone, pot can feel pretty legal.
But, of course, it’s not: 155,000 Californians were arrested because of cannabis-related offenses between 2010 and 2014, explained Ellen Flenniken, managing director for development at the Drug Policy Alliance.
“Marijuana is not legal in this state yet, so debunk that myth,” she said.
“California is not going to be easy.”
The California Way
Despite these critics, the optics of legalization this fall look a lot better than in 2010.
Six years ago, Prop. 19 lost with only 46 percent support. The face of the campaign was Oakland pot-college chancellor Richard Lee, a former rock-show roadie in a wheelchair, standing amid a gaggle of sometimes hairy, street-hardened reformers. It was a presidential off-year in 2010, too, and the youth vote stayed home. Funding to support Prop. 19 never materialized. And Attorney General Eric Holder flew into Los Angeles and promised a federal crackdown before the big vote.
This year, Prop. 64 is backed by the second in command of the entire state, and boasts the support of the California Medical Association, the California Democratic Party, and the California branch of the National Associations for the Advancement of Colored People.
For the first time ever in California, a legalization bid has been pre-tested with mainstream voters and is being run by a team of professional campaign operatives day-to-day. In 2015, Newsom led an ACLU Blue Ribbon Commission through months of public and private hearings before drafting the initiative’s language. The Yes on 64 campaign is coordinated out of veteran consultant Gale Kaufman’s office in Sacramento, and high-powered spokesperson Jason Kinney is also on the team.
Michael Sutton, a conservationist who is at the forefront of the Yes on 64 campaign, was bullish when he spoke to the Express this summer.
“It’s probably going to be a landslide as these things go,” he said.
Yes on 64 won’t need tens-of-millions of dollars in its campaign coffers to win, he added. “I don’t think it’s going to have to get that high. It’s comparatively well-funded, and that’s important,” Sutton explained.
He also said voters can expect to see more Yes on 64 advertising on TV, radio, and print, and more arguments on both sides of the issue. Snoop Dogg and Khalifa also ran a voter registration campaign at their latest series of California shows.
Perhaps that’s the ace in the hole for 64: political insiders and playing the system. “I don’t think we’re over-reaching,” is how Sutton put it this summer. “We’ve done our homework.”
The political insiders have ample weed industry support, too. While last time, Prop. 19 failed to carry California’s pot-growing counties. This year, Prop. 64 is endorsed in the industry by the likes of The Emerald Cup founder Tim Blake, and Harborside Health Center’s Steve DeAngelo, as well as the CCIA and the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
Key to every progressive “yes” vote is hammering home the social-justice argument for legalization in the final days of the race.
Newsom himself said that, if Prop. 64 fails, it will be a major hold-up for social justice in California. He pointed out that cannabis prohibition in the state leads to roughly 20,000 arrests annually, according to the most recent data from the state attorney general. Those arrests are mostly Black and brown young men. And these arrests also make nonviolent drug offenders less employable.
Likewise, pot arrests are a leading driver of America’s mass incarceration epidemic, according to 2012 numbers from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program.
“It’s a war on the poor and it’s a war on folks of color and it’s got to end,” Newsom argued. “And the only way you end it is by going to the most destructive and the most ineffective part of that war, and that’s the war on cannabis.”
Defeat would also mean a loss for the state’s economy. Each year, California squanders an estimated $1 billion in tax revenue to its robust and popular illegal cannabis trade, and the state wastes tens of millions of dollars in adjudication. And it’s difficult to put a dollar amount on the losses from prohibition-related job firings, family breakups, and life-course derailment.
Newsom seemed genuinely haunted by political inaction or failure on the issue of legalization. During his keynote, he told the story of a billboard in Los Angeles that says “You’re not stuck in traffic: You are traffic.”
“I don’t want to be that guy. I don’t want to be on a panel with ex-politicians talking about what I coulda-shoulda done,” he said, adding that if people don’t have the courage or conviction to legalize, then “real people suffer.”
“And it will set back the movement for regulated adult use across this country for years and years,” he warned.
Steve Fox, a veteran reformer at the Marijuana Policy Project in Washington, D.C., agreed:
“If California loses, but [legalization wins] a few other states, that would probably be considered mostly a disaster.”