Dan Morain

Dan Morain: Don’t hop aboard Gavin Newsom’s magic bandwagon quite yet

Medical marijuana clone plants are shown at a medical marijuana dispensary in Oakland in 2011.
Medical marijuana clone plants are shown at a medical marijuana dispensary in Oakland in 2011. Associated Press file

Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom’s marijuana legalization initiative seemed to be giving off the scent of inevitability last week.

Its unwieldy name aside, the “Control, Regulate and Tax Adult Use of Marijuana Act” heading for the 2016 ballot would strengthen law enforcement and allow local control, the proponents claimed. And the kids would win, too.

Newsom, the initiative’s most prominent booster, called the measure “thoughtful” and promised it would make “marijuana difficult for kids to access.”

One of Newsom’s patrons, billionaire Sean Parker, of Facebook and Napster wealth, is offering some of his millions to help finance the campaign and called the initiative a “sensible reform-based measure that protects children.”

Consultant Gale Kaufman, whose clients include the California Teachers Association, signed on to run the campaign.

But not all the Democratic cognoscenti were climbing aboard Newsom’s magic bandwagon.

“I may be behind the times,” Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León told me. “I’m not there on recreational use.”

De León has no problem with cancer patients and people with AIDS finding comfort in medical marijuana. He calls the notion of jailing marijuana users “boneheaded.” But recreational use is another issue. He grew up in Barrio Logan in San Diego, represents inner city Los Angeles and has never met Sean Parker.

“Growing up where I grew up, I’ve seen marijuana used as a gateway drug. Maybe not everyone, but I’ve seen folks graduate from marijuana to heroin and crystal meth,” de León said. “I have seen what drugs have done in my community, in my own family.”

Polls consistently show Californians back legalization, with caveats. A Public Policy Institute of California poll earlier this year showed a majority of white and African American voters think marijuana should be legal. But only 42 percent of Latino and 39 percent of Asian voters support legalization, and 54 percent of parents would be bothered if a marijuana store were to open in their neighborhood, the poll showed.

Earlier this year, Newsom made a big deal of releasing his Blue Ribbon Commission report on legalization, saying it was the product of much study and deep thought. At the top of his report’s recommendations: “This industry should not be California’s next Gold Rush.”

Not to be a buzzkill, but the 60-page initiative could create mega-corporations, curtail local officials’ authority to keep marijuana retailers out of their jurisdictions, and limit certain labor protections.

“It is very problematic for us,” said Barry Broad, an attorney and lobbyist who represents the Teamsters. “I would predict that we will oppose it.”

Broad, hardly a prohibitionist, was part of an alliance that included labor, cops, local officials and some marijuana entrepreneurs who agreed earlier this year to a three-bill package to regulate readily available medical marijuana.

Negotiated by Gov. Jerry Brown’s top aides and signed into law by the governor, the new marijuana regulations seek to guard against monopolization by creating a three-tiered system. Individuals could receive licenses to grow, distribute and sell marijuana, but could not get licenses to do all three.

The Newsom-Parker initiative would undo that restriction by saying a person may receive licenses for everything from farm to market. The initiative takes the definition of what is a person to a whole new realm: “any individual, firm, co-partnership, joint venture, association, corporation, limited liability company; estate, trust, business trust, receiver, syndicate, or any other group or combination acting as a unit, and the plural as well as the singular.”

Corporations, evidently, are people, as are syndicates, joint ventures, limited liability companies, estates, trusts and the rest. Let the gold rush begin.

The legislation signed by Brown ensures that city councils and county boards of supervisors retain the power to grant or deny permits to marijuana retailers and growers.

In announcing his support for the initiative, Newsom, a former San Francisco mayor, said the initiative would preserve “local preference.” But a provision says cities and counties cannot “completely prohibit” marijuana businesses “unless approved by a majority vote of the voters of the local jurisdiction.”

In other words, voters would get the final say, rather than elected city council members or county supervisors. That might seem democratic. But here’s my wild guess about who would fund such local campaigns: syndicates, corporations, trusts and any other “persons” who stand to profit from growing and selling marijuana.

The initiative says people under 21 cannot legally buy marijuana. But Rachel Barry, a UC San Francisco tobacco researcher who sat on Newsom’s blue ribbon commission, said the initiative authors seem to have ignored tobacco-control experts’ recommendations – this in a state that has led the nation on anti-smoking efforts.

For all the talk of protecting kids, there is nothing in the initiative that would prevent the marijuana industry from marketing to young people or any other demographic group. Nor would the initiative restrict marijuana industry sponsorship of cultural events, or product placement in movies, which have been powerful tools for the tobacco industry, and advertising restrictions are lax.

Between now and next November, consultants, financed by Parker and other well-heeled donors, will seek to persuade voters that the initiative will control, regulate and tax the adult use of marijuana, and protect children. They’ll assure us that corporations, syndicates, trusts, LLCs and other “persons” who would become eligible to grow, distribute and sell the weed won’t set off a new gold rush.

But in a prequel to an opposition campaign here, voters in Ohio on Tuesday overwhelmingly rejected a legalization initiative after opponents contended it would have created marijuana monopolies. Come to think of it, maybe that scent wasn’t inevitability after all, but rather the stench of skunk.

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