Capitol Alert

Marijuana legalization campaign launches in California

The coalition behind the campaign to legalize recreational marijuana in California launched Wednesday, vowing to avoid the stumbles that undermined past efforts here to legitimize the drug.

The as-yet unnumbered initiative aiming for November has begun submitting more than 600,000 signatures, far more than the 365,000 needed.

It was California that led the legalization debate six years ago with Proposition 19, a pivotal moment in the national discourse that spurred Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Alaska to formally recognize cannabis, California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom said at the downtown event.

Now, he said, it’s the state’s turn to lead again.

“The ‘War on Drugs’ has been an abject failure,” Newsom said, contending the decades-old federal policies to clamp down on drugs by harshly criminalizing them have disproportionately harmed people of color and the poor.

“It’s destroyed lives,” said Newsom, a declared candidate for governor in 2018. “It’s destroyed communities.”

The carefully planned roll-out of the measure at the Commonwealth Club, complete with televisions bearing the slogan “Let’s get it right CA!” came after months of laboring over the initiative’s language. The early efforts underscore the stakes of the campaign and demonstrate how the proponents are trying not to repeat the mistakes of six years ago.

Surveying a stage of medical professionals, law enforcement officials, environmental groups and drug policy reformers, Newsom said each of them comes to the legalization issue from different perspectives, including ideological. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Costa Mesa, once served as a young speechwriter for former President Ronald Reagan.

Rohrabacher, the only person on the stage to endorse Ted Cruz for president, framed the legalization issue as one of freedom and liberty. The U.S. has amassed too much federal debt, he said, trying to control the private lives of adults rather than tending to pressing needs.

“We got a criminal justice system spending billions of dollars ... to try to take care of someone who wants to smoke weed in his backyard,” he said. “How many women have been raped or people have been murdered by distracting our law enforcement?”

Altering a famous line from his old boss, Rohrabacher declared the walls of cannabis prohibition should stand no longer.

“Join us in tearing down this wall,” he said to applause.

With funding from billionaire entrepreneur Sean Parker, the founding president of Facebook, the campaign has largely coalesced many of the disparate marijuana groups around the signature-gathering effort.

It would legitimize possession of 1 ounce of marijuana and cultivation of six marijuana plants for adults 21 and over. It would impose a 15 percent excise tax on all retail sales, though localities could still ban marijuana sales in their jurisdictions.

It also would impose an infraction and maximum fine of $100 for possession of more than an ounce of marijuana.

The opposition campaign includes the Police Chiefs Association, California Hospital Association, California Teamsters, California State Sheriffs’ Association and California Peace Officers Association, among others. On Wednesday, their lead consultant, who also opposed the 2010 measure, promised a strong defense.

Wayne Johnson circulated a white paper by the San Diego District Attorney’s Office that said the the initiative “allows persons convicted of dealing large amounts of controlled substances such as heroin, methamphetamine or cocaine to become ‘legal marijuana dealers.’ 

“That’s a big problem,” Johnson said. “They knew it was a problem. They were told expressly.”

Jason Kinney, a spokesman for the legalization campaign, said the measure explicitly denies a license to anyone with prior offenses for drug trafficking or drug-related offenses involving minors.

Newsom, noting the coalition’s efforts to prepare for the initiative after the loss of Proposition 19, characterized its provisions as “tough” and said they would decrease trafficking and youth use of marijuana.

“I am promoting this as a father who is concerned with four kids about drug use and drug abuse,” he said. “You do not have to be pro-marijuana to be pro-legalization.”

Christopher Cadelago: 916-326-5538, @ccadelago