Capitol Alert

New California pot legalization campaign learns from past failure

Nate Bradley, co-founder of the California Cannabis Industry Association, paused for a moment as he assessed how the latest campaign to legalize recreational marijuana differs from an effort in 2010 that was decisively rejected by voters.

Bradley, who worked on the failed campaign, said the previous attempt was a grass-roots undertaking, while the latest measure is “run by experts at passing initiatives.”

“It’s a completely different ballgame,” said Bradley, who stood beside Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and other legalization supporters at their launch this month. Bradley said it’s difficult to compare the two “without getting too insulting. ... There’s a credibility factor we have now with these people on board.”

Six years ago, California stood to become the first state in the nation to allow recreational marijuana with Proposition 19. As the election neared, polls showed it in position to pass, driven by strong support from majority Democrats. But the measure faltered in the final weeks, and ultimately on Election Day, sunk by a fierce opposition that picked apart its provisions while targeting populous regions of the state, including Los Angeles County.

As Bradley and advocates unveiled their campaign in San Francisco, the lessons of 2010 persist. That year, opponents capitalized on the complexity of the initiative. They poked holes in areas of the measure they said were too vague and would allow pot to proliferate, including in the workplace. Critics were able to coalesce many of the state’s top elected Democrats, who saw problems with how the measure was written and took a united stand against it.

The vast majority of newspaper editorial boards opposed the measure, said Wayne Johnson, who ran the opposition campaign and has returned to try to defeat the latest pot legalization initiative. His “no” campaign, which raised just $350,000, a good chunk from law enforcement, ran ads contending it would allow big-rig and school bus drivers to smoke pot before getting behind the wheel.

“The Proposition 19 campaign educated people that this is not a simple up or down about whether this should be legal,” Johnson said.

Legalization proponents took a different approach this time. While the 2010 proponents far outspent their critics, the new legalization campaign is in better financial position, counting as its top backer billionaire entrepreneur Sean Parker. Leading the campaign is a veteran team anchored by strategist Gale Kaufman.

This time, they are running the measure in a presidential election year, a time when Democratic turnout typically increases. They also are focusing outreach on ethnic groups like Latinos, who last time turned against marijuana legalization.

Newsom said the most significant change between the campaigns is the due diligence that went into drafting the new proposal. He convened a task force, holding meetings across the state to study the effects of legalization and recommend safeguards. While past attempts were marred by infighting among industry groups, advocates said they built their coalition by reaching out to sponsors of rival initiatives, as well as medical, environmental, law enforcement and drug policy experts.

The resulting measure would allow those 21 years and older to possess, use and share up to an ounce of marijuana and the cultivation of six pot plants.

It imposes a 15 percent tax on retail sales, in addition to state and local sales taxes, and establishes a cultivation tax of $9.25 per ounce for marijuana buds and $2.75 per ounce for marijuana leaves. Local governments would be allowed to ban recreational marijuana businesses.

“We are not doing this lightly,” Newsom said. “We are doing it very thoughtfully.”

Roger Salazar, a Democratic strategist who worked against the 2010 initiative, scrutinized the language that year to find issues that would create doubts in the minds of voters.

“It would have created a patchwork of regulations up and down the state that would have made enforcement very difficult and confusing,” Salazar said.

Looking at the new proposal, Salazar said, “I think they have avoided that.”

“They have been very straightforward about the measure and not put in too many bells and whistles to overly confuse it,” he said.

Still, Johnson and other critics of the measure are wasting no time, exploiting what they see as the new measure’s vulnerabilities.

Early members of Johnson’s team include the California Police Chiefs Association, California Hospital Association and California Teamsters. The group highlights a provision allowing people with certain drug felony convictions to apply for a license under the measure.

“You’re convicted of getting caught with a kilo, or a couple hundred doses of heroin, you got convicted of a felony, you can now go on and apply for a marijuana license in California,” Johnson said.

San Bernardino County District Attorney Mike Ramos, in a letter examining the legalization proposal, said it is plagued with “drafting errors.” Ramos said the measure “will do nothing” to curb the illicit underground market, adding, “We know from the Colorado experience (where recreational marijuana is legal) that the black market will flourish.”

Others point to Colorado, contending that driving under the influence of drugs and youth access to marijuana have increased in that state. Ken Corney, president of the California Police Chiefs Association, said he’s concerned about the potency of the drug.

“This is not the legalization of the green bud that was passed around at Woodstock or other concerts,” Corney said. “It’s commercialization of a for-profit industry to sell highly potent, concentrated THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) compounds in their products, including edibles and concentrated oils.”

The California Hospital Association opposed the measure over “grave concerns” about the impacts on health, breaking with the California Medical Association, which supports legalization, arguing that it would create a system that better controls use of the drug.

“We look at it as a public health situation no different than issues related to tobacco,” said Bill Emmerson, senior vice president with the hospital group.

Anticipating the attacks, proponents have adopted the slogan “Let’s get it right!” The campaign counters that the California measure prohibits a license to anyone with prior offenses for certain drug trafficking or drug-related offenses involving minors. They also point to protections to prevent youth marijuana exposure, such as buffer zones around schools and a ban on marketing to minors, and funding in the measure to establish and enforce a DUI program.

Supporters also begin the campaign amid growing public approval for legalization. A Public Policy Institute of California survey last year found that 55 percent of likely voters believe that marijuana should be legal. For the first time, more than 4 in 10 Latinos, 42 percent, said they agreed with legalization.

Latinos were evenly divided two months ahead of the vote on Proposition 19, but shifted heavily to the opposition side in late October, according to the Field Poll. In the upcoming November election, Latinos are expected to make up an even larger segment of the vote, particularly with presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump at the top of the ticket, said Mark DiCamillo, director of the poll.

“To me, a big swing constituency that the marijuana folks have to deal with are Latinos,” DiCamillo said.

Antonio Gonzalez, president of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, a nonpartisan organization that works to bolster Latino voter participation, said exit poll data from 2010 showed deep cleavages in the Latino electorate.

“But this is a whole new day,” said Gonzalez, who supports legalization. “There have been six years of working the field, educating leadership, educating communities. And this ballot measure is much more advanced and precise. I think it stands on the shoulders of the 2010 initiative and the other legalization efforts.”

Among the appealing aspects of the measure are provisions to generate money for treatment and drug education, curtail marijuana use among minors and weaken the foreign drug cartels that have disrupted communities at home and thrived in Central and South America, Gonzalez said.

“Now, it’s all about doing the work to get that word out to the community to have a sophisticated bilingual campaign,” he said.

Alice Huffman, president of the California NAACP, said the biggest challenge for African Americans is clearing up “misinformation” that pot is a gateway drug. Huffman, who supported Proposition 19, said “we have to get inside the churches, where they are getting misinformation, and educate those who are leaders.”

Another area of change since 2010 is the maturation of the marijuana industry, said Kimberly R. Simms, an attorney in San Diego whose practice specializes in cannabis. Last year, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a package of bills regulating medical marijuana, decriminalized by voters in 1996.

Simms said the cannabis association and main growers group have provided structure for what was a loosely bound, and thriving, industry. “Before, we were just a bunch of scattered voices, never really uniting behind any true organization structure that hired the right people to go and relay our message,” she said.

She said the groups have benefited from studying successful legalization drives played out in Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Alaska. It’s time for elected officials here and in states that haven’t yet weighed legalization to participate in the debate, said Newsom, California’s highest-ranking supporter.

“You got to step up,” Newsom said. “You have an obligation. Because this is serious business.”

Christopher Cadelago: 916-326-5538, @ccadelago