Dan Morain

Dan Morain: Debate to legalize pot is about to get interesting

Two weeks ago, Gov. Jerry Brown, no fan of marijuana legalization, mused on “Meet the Press” about the world’s many dangers and the need to stay alert, “if not 24 hours a day, more than some of the potheads might be able to pull together.”

Last week, Brown’s own California Democratic Party held its annual convention and voted to fully embrace marijuana legalization.

And Brown’s often nettlesome understudy, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, told a convention audience that he is all-in on the side of legalization.

Newsom’s Republican opponent, Ron Nehring, a former California Republican Party chairman, is an adamant, though thoughtful, foe of legalization. As he mounts his long-shot challenge, Nehring is intent on focusing his campaign on the question of legalization.

There won’t be a legalization initiative on the ballot this fall. Supporters will have to wait until 2016 for that. But the legalization debate could turn more interesting.

First, a few numbers; no, not that kind.

The Public Policy Institute of California issued a poll last September showing that 60 percent of likely voters support legalization. Support is spread among all age groups, but is particularly strong among younger voters, a fact not lost on Newsom who aspires to higher office.

But there is another segment of the Democratic base that is far less enamored with Newsom’s notion.

Latinos, fundamental to the Democratic base, overwhelmingly oppose legalization. In the PPIC poll, only 36 percent of Latinos favored it and 62 percent opposed legalization.

Younger people generally are the most supportive. Not so among Latinos. The poll showed that only 35 percent of Latinos between 18 and 34 supported legalizing the drug, and 64 percent opposed it.

Even Latinos who identify themselves as Democrats and call themselves liberals oppose it. Moderates were particularly opposed, 67 percent. The gap narrowed among likely Latino voters. Still 52 percent of likely voters oppose making weed a legal substance.

“You have to see the devastation that drugs bring,” Sen. Lou Correa, a moderate Democrat from Santa Ana, told me. Correa is carrying one bill to establish standards for driving while stoned – it has stalled – and another bill supported by police chiefs to strictly regulate medical marijuana.

“Parents are really concerned about their kids and safety,” Correa said. “It is a family issue. They see it as, ‘Here comes another challenge for our kids.’ ”

Nehring, a businessman and political junkie who is steeped in such data, knows the GOP must win back Latino voters if it is to become competitive again in California.

Nehring comes to his anti-legalization opinions the hard way, having grown up in a house where the parents were alcoholics. He says he has never taken a drink or smoked a cigarette, much less a joint. He recalls his mother regularly getting drunk and passing out in the afternoon, and getting in screaming fights when his father came home. His mother died at age 52 and his father at 62.

“Both lost their jobs. The household finances were in the tank. That was my life for seven years,” he said.

Not that Nehring favors criminalization. He embraces the view of the organization Smart Approaches to Marijuana, run by former Obama administration drug policy adviser Kevin A. Sabet and Patrick J. Kennedy, the late Sen. Edward Kennedy’s son. The organization opposes legalization and criminalization, and supports further study of marijuana, and treatment for abusers.

Nehring lists some of the problems with legalization: higher insurance rates, a tougher time recruiting workers, and, worst of all, the industry will market to kids, knowing that they would be the most long-term and therefore profitable customers.

“Venture capitalists who want to invest in marijuana are not going to target the 50-year-old users,” Nehring said. “They are going to target young folks in the same way as Big Tobacco does.”

Newsom frames the issue differently. In his convention speech, he said, “This is not a debate about stoners.” He has three kids and has no interest in promoting marijuana use, he says. But Newsom said that since President Richard Nixon declared a “war on drugs” in 1971, 37 million people have been arrested for what he called nonviolent drug offenses, and 200,000 college students have lost federal aid because of drug convictions.

“You can be pro-regulation without being an advocate for drug use,” Newsom said.

Perhaps. But Newsom did not prognosticate about what might happen once marijuana becomes regulated and taxed, as his Democratic Party seeks in its platform.

Among the issues left undiscussed: How could the state stop corporations that get involved in the marijuana industry from advertising heavily? And as has happened with gambling money since Indian casinos became legal, politicians will become intoxicated by green entrepreneurs’ campaign money.

In the 2014 campaign, Newsom has little to worry about. There hasn’t been a Republican lieutenant governor since country music mogul Mike Curb won the office and made sport of poking at young Jerry Brown.

California won’t have another Republican lieutenant governor any time soon, given the Democrats’ hold on the state. And Newsom, not Nehring, is on the right side of marijuana politics, if not the policy.

Newsom also likes a stage, a crowd and a debate. Nehring would be a worthy foil. Both candidates care about an issue that needs serious discussion, and should engage in that debate. Along the way, they could help inform the electorate about an issue that is far more nuanced than many advocates on both sides would have you believe.