Capitol Alert

Gavin Newsom could be key to pot legalization initiative

Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks during a public forum on his Blue Ribbon Commission on Marijuana Policy at UCLA on April 21.
Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks during a public forum on his Blue Ribbon Commission on Marijuana Policy at UCLA on April 21. The Associated Press

Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, a candidate for governor in 2018, recognizes his support for legalizing recreational marijuana could backfire on him personally.

But as activists prepare a draft legalization initiative for next year’s ballot, it’s Newsom who now appears to have much of the political leverage.

He has spent more than a year leading a pot legalization research effort as chairman of the Blue Ribbon Commission on Marijuana Policy. The ACLU-funded group recently released a report analyzing some of the challenges, from how to tax the drug to keeping it out of the hands of children.

Newsom said in a recent interview that he isn’t going out of his way to help run an initiative to legalize, tax and regulate recreational marijuana.

“I am not part of the day-to-day discussions about the ballot, but we have to implement (it) if it passes. And that’s on us,” he said.

Still, should he decide the pending proposal falls short of his standards and declines to offer his backing, that could be damning, said Alex Kreit, a drug policy expert at Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego.

There’s another reason to look to Newsom as a key to any legalization measure’s success. In 2010, the failed Proposition 19 to legalize weed was in part doomed by opposition from virtually all of the state’s high-profile Democratic leaders, including now-Gov. Jerry Brown, U.S. Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, as well as Newsom and the current Attorney General Kamala Harris.

Fast-forward to 2016, Brown and Feinstein have been clear about their opposition to legalizing recreational marijuana. Boxer is retiring, and Harris, who is seeking the seat, is unlikely to take a political position on an initiative given her official duties of preparing the ballot title and summary.

That leaves Newsom again holding the cards.

“He can say ‘we made recommendations, and they took those recommendations to heart,’ ” Kreit said.

“But it also leaves him an out to say, ‘I am jumping off’ – either staying neutral or coming out against a measure, he added. “That could be a real fatal blow. ... I would imagine that they are having behind-the-scenes conversations, and imagine they wouldn’t do anything to jeopardize his support.”

Call Christopher Cadelago, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 326-5538. Follow him on Twitter @ccadelago.

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