Capitol Alert

Sean Parker, pushing pot legalization, invisible in California campaign

Sean Parker arrives at the 5th Annual “Help Haiti Home” gala at the Montage Hotel in Beverly Hills on Jan. 9, 2016.
Sean Parker arrives at the 5th Annual “Help Haiti Home” gala at the Montage Hotel in Beverly Hills on Jan. 9, 2016. TNS

Sean Parker, the billionaire tech tycoon who has helped push California to the precipice of legalizing marijuana, isn’t talking.

Parker, founding president of Facebook and co-founder of the file-sharing service Napster, has contributed $7.3 million toward the Proposition 64 legalization effort. Another $1.5 million went to New Approach PAC, a committee affiliated with the legalization drive.

To date, however, he has been absent from the public campaign for the initiative. His only public remarks on the topic came in a Nov. 2, 2015, statement sent by Parker aide Chris Garland after proponents filed the measure. In the statement, Parker said he had been following the pot issue “with great interest for some time.”

“It’s very encouraging to see a vibrant community of activists, many of whom have dedicated their lives to this issue, coming together around a sensible reform based measure that protects children, gives law enforcement additional resources, and establishes a strong regulatory framework for responsible adult use of marijuana – one that will yield economic benefits for all Californians,” he said. “I’m cautiously optimistic that a coalition is forming around these shared goals.”

Parker’s refusal to sit for interviews contrasts with the other wealthy benefactors to state ballot measures, among them San Francisco environmentalist Tom Steyer (supporting Proposition 56, a tobacco tax hike), Stockton farmer Dean Cortopassi (Proposition 53, requiring a public vote for large revenue bonds) and Palo Alto physicist Charles Munger Jr. (Proposition 54, a legislative transparency measure).

Of the three, only Steyer is said to harbor political ambitions of his own. He is appearing in two TV ads for Proposition 56, and several more over the last few years paid for by his environmental organization. Cortopassi has met with reporters and opinion-makers, while Munger has become a fixture of Republican Party politics and speaks with the media regularly.

He has no current or future interest in the marijuana industry.

Jason Kinney, on Proposition 64 donor Sean Parker

Parker is not new to politics. He’s hosted fundraisers, including for Hillary Clinton, and gave $100,000 to supporters of Proposition 19, an unsuccessful marijuana legalization measure on California’s 2010 ballot.

His reluctance to talk about Proposition 64 prompted speculation by opponents that his large contributions amounted to a “business investment that he expects to pay off,” as consultant Wayne Johnson put it earlier this year. He and the rest of the opposition campaign ultimately backed off from that stance. Late Thursday, Johnson pointed to smaller contributing businesses with an economic interest in legalization.

“If (Parker) is an altruistic investor, he’s in the distinct minority,” Johnson said.

“Look, everybody has the right to talk or not talk and everybody has the right to be criticized for it,” he added. “What is he afraid to be asked I think is the real question.”

Asked about Parker’s continued absenteeism, Proposition 64 spokesman Jason Kinney issued a prepared statement.

“Sean is supporting Proposition 64 because, like most Californians, he believes that the criminalization of marijuana has been a costly, racially-biased and inhumane failure,” Kinney wrote. “He has no current or future interest in the marijuana industry. He’s not seeking the spotlight – he’s seeking social change. This isn’t about him – it’s about the thousands of lives ruined and the billions of dollars wasted by the misguided war on drugs.”

Proposition 64, which also is backed by Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, would allow adults 21 and older to possess 1 ounce of marijuana and grow six plants. It would impose a 15 percent tax on all retail sales and allow localities to ban marijuana sales in their jurisdictions.

Addressing Parker this week, Newsom said he is “being consistent (because) he said it’s not about him.” Newsom acknowledged the current measure, and the politically sophisticated operation behind it, would not have happened without Parker.

But while Parker gave input in “broad strokes,” offering ways to alleviate their shared concerns about social and economic justice, Newsom said, “I was in all the drafting meetings. Sean was not in those meetings.”

Newsom concluded: “So, yeah, he’s supporting it, and he’s playing an outsized role in terms of investing in it, but he’s not behind the scenes manipulating it.

“And I think that’s to his credit.”

Christopher Cadelago: 916-326-5538, @ccadelago

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