Photo Illustration by Audrey Fukuman. Photograph by Mike Koozmin.

Citizen Cannabis

California’s most vocal supporter of legalized cannabis will likely be its next governor.

There may not be a victory party headlined by Willie Nelson and Snoop Dogg, and there may not be a hemp victory garden planted on the front lawn of the Governor’s Mansion.

But that doesn’t matter. Because no matter what, California’s next governor must be a supporter of legalized cannabis.

For politicians who want a viable future, there is no longer any other choice.

“A majority of Californians support marijuana legalization,” says Tamar Todd, the director of Marijuana Law and Policy for the Drug Policy Alliance, the group that’s taken on responsibility for putting a legalization initiative on the ballot next year. “If I were running for office and I wanted those votes, I would support it as well.”

The great notion of America’s biggest and richest state run by a chief executive okay with its people getting stoned is still at least four years in the future.

In the short term, we must deal with a chief executive scared to death of “potheads.” The current governor, the venerable former seminarian-wild child Jerry Brown has a grumpy old man opinion on drug reform. And he was just sworn in for a second term.

Just who the next governor will be is not yet known. As it happens, the current frontrunner to replace Brown is not only in favor of marijuana legalization — he’s also drug reform’s biggest cheerleader.

“The politician who’s been most outspoken on legalization has been Gavin Newsom,” Todd says. “He has stated he supports marijuana legalization — and he has been, I think, the most aggressive and engaging in debate on how to best achieve it.”

Is Newsom a Stoner?
No way. The former SF mayor, who famously went sober after some, er, personal difficulties, has never cottoned to cannabis. He’s never smoked, according to him, and “I don’t like drugs. I don’t like drug abuse. But I hate the drug war more,” he told a Marin audience last year.

Newsom’s election to governor is far from assured, with years left before the campaign even begins. But the trend is moving solidly in one direction: Voters who are sick of the drug war are coming of age. Voters eager to continue prohibition are dying off. Just like with same-sex marriage, the days when a serious candidate can be backwards on cannabis are over.

Certainly cannabis has not had a more important celebrity pitchman. The former San Francisco mayor currently inhabits the lieutenant governor’s job. It’s a misunderstood and derided gig, but it’s allowed Newsom plenty of time to grandstand on marijuana’s behalf.

Since coming out in favor of ending cannabis prohibition in December 2012 in an interview with The New York Times, Newsom has taken the pro-pot message on Real Time With Bill Maher and shared a stage with Richard Branson, another legalization supporter with real star power.

He’s also lent his charisma to the chairmanship of an American Civil Liberties Union panel that’s been studying other states’ experiments with legal weed and is expected to deliver recommendations this year on how legalization can be achieved.

This did not come about overnight. It took many years of many people working very hard to convince Newsom that legalization was the right idea, activists and insiders tell SF Evergreen.

Skeptics and cynics look at the timing and scoff: Newsom went legal six weeks after voters in Colorado and Washington proved that marijuana is a winner at the ballot box.

Still, even with winning numbers, cannabis is in need of powerful friends. That’s because legalization has plenty of powerful enemies, the most powerful of whom is in our own backyard.

AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta

AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta

The other key power player on pot appears to be another former San Francisco mayor: U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who has been reliably and virulently anti-marijuana for her entire political career, and, at 81, is showing no signs of slowing down.

Earlier this month, Feinstein signed her name to an official letter that declared marijuana legalization is eroding the United States’ standing in the world — because, unlike climate change, the country has signed onto international drug control treaties. And these documents have declared recreational marijuana unacceptable.

Senator Change
Marijuana legalization’s most powerful foe could be a San Francisco resident: Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who is still doing what she can to block drug reform in the Senate.
The woman likely to join her in about two years’ time is Attorney General Kamala Harris, who announced her intention to run for the seat soon to be vacated by retiring Sen. Barbara Boxer.
The attorney general will need the help of law enforcement to get elected, and she’ll likely only confront the issue when forced to do so. In Washington, we envision her as a Sen. Corey Booker type: supportive of the issue, but by no means a figurehead for the legalization movement.

Feinstein has helped sabotage legal weed before. She served as chairwoman of the committee formed in opposition of Prop. 19, California’s failed legalization effort in 2010, and is likely to serve as the figurehead of prohibition against any legalization effort on the ballot next year.

Not that legalization is a fait accompli by any means. In order for there to be an initiative on the ballot, there needs to be an initiative. Language could come together later this year, but that’s the easy part. After that comes the fundraising … and the fundraising, and the fundraising.

Anywhere between $15 million and $30 million will be needed to qualify, run, and win a ballot push in 2016, strategists say.

That’s a big number. But there’s reason to be sanguine. All the other numbers are in cannabis’s favor. Fifty-eight percent of all Americans support legalization, according to the most recent Gallup polls. And cannabis is more popular than most political candidates: Weed won more votes than gubernatorial candidates in Oregon in the fall, and also out-polled Barack Obama in Colorado in 2012.

“If there’s a good, responsible initiative on the ballot, he [Newsom] is going to support it,” Todd says. “And others will support it as well.”