Kids, Cartels, and Heroin: How California's Marijuana Legalization Campaign Will Be Run - May 18, 2016 - SF Weekly
SF Weekly

Kids, Cartels, and Heroin: How California's Marijuana Legalization Campaign Will Be Run

Just after noon on May 3, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom stood in front of a well-dressed crowd at the Commonwealth Club — an “unusual coalition” of Republicans, doctors, environmentalists, and former cops, as one member put it — talking at length about marijuana.

Specifically, the still-magnetic former San Francisco mayor and likely frontrunner for governor in 2018 railed about how much he hates the stuff.

“I can't stand it,” Newsom said. “I mean it. I don't want it in parks and playgrounds, I don't want my neighbors smoking it. I just don't like it.” He took care to mention his position as a concerned father of four, as television cameras and reporters' microphones picked up every word.

A telegenic dad who hates weed: Meet the most influential backer of California's best-ever shot at legalizing recreational cannabis.

Newsom was the star power and main attraction at the campaign kickoff for the Adult Use of Marijuana Act (or AUMA, as you'll read time and again over the next six months), the ballot measure that would legalize small amounts of cannabis for adults 21 and over. The campaign's backers say it has enough signatures to appear before voters in November alongside Donald Trump and Hillary/Bernie. As for the amount of cannabis seen at the kickoff — or evidence that the stuff even exists — it was far less than the 1 ounce and six plants the measure allows, even figuratively speaking.

AUMA's slogan — “Let's get it right!” — was printed in blue and red letters, not a shade of green to be found. Talks by the head of the NAACP, a former state Fish and Game commissioner, and several respected doctors covered the incarceration state, cannabis's still-mostly unknown medical potential, the racist wrongness of the drug war — and children. Newsom's kids, your kids, the kids of the future — how they shouldn't smoke weed, how they can and do already, and how they shouldn't go to jail for it. The campaign committee's official name is, after all, “Californians To Control, Regulate, And Tax Adult Use Of Marijuana While Protecting Children” — and it shows.

(Absent in presence and in messaging were the people who have paid the most to advance the campaign thus far. Tech billionaire Sean Parker, who has given the campaign $1 million out of the $2.5 million it has collected to date, but who has yet to state publicly what's in it for him, wasn't there. Neither was anyone from Southern California-based “Google Maps for pot” outfit Weedmaps, which has chipped in $750,000 — and would see its market expand sizably if AUMA passes.)

This is how the legalization campaign in California will be run, and this is the messaging to expect from the forces who want to end the state's 100-year-old-and-counting experiment with criminalizing weed. This is all by careful, calculated design, as befits the political minds in the room watching Newsom scowl as he talked about the scandal of smelling a burning joint (a dream team representing at least three statewide political powerhouses).

They know legalization is still no sure thing. There are great polls that show it's inevitable; there are also shit polls that say the question is very much in the balance. (A recent Bay Area Council–funded survey showed just 50 percent support.) Libertarian-friendly pronouncements that adults should be able to enjoy this activity in peace will not be how this fight will be won — nor will there be much mention of the fact that, thanks to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, of all people, nobody goes to jail in California for simple possession of marijuana anymore.

So what will the opposition to marijuana legalization talk about? In a twist, weed. And heroin — lots of it.

“20,000 doses of heroin,” as Sacramento public affairs consultant Wayne Johnson put it. A smooth veteran operative who speaks with a slight Southern tilt — and has a Trumpian tendency to declare the AUMA's problems as “yuuuge” — Johnson was one of the key figures on the No on Prop. 19 campaign in 2010, and he's reprising the role this year, on behalf of interests representing California law enforcement, hospitals, and the Teamsters (who have yet to take an official vote on opposing legalization, and are thus officially agnostic, but went ahead and started giving Johnson money anyway).

Someone could have been convicted of moving that French Connection-sized load and still be eligible for a license to sell cannabis under the AUMA, according to Johnson's reading. And indeed, there is a clause in the AUMA that says a “prior [felony] conviction” for selling a controlled substance “shall not be the sole ground for the denial of a license.” (The AUMA also says anyone can be denied a license if they've been convicted of a felony for “drug trafficking” or any drug-related conviction that carries an enhancement — of which there are many, from moving weight over a kilogram to running a meth lab — but these are boring details when there are suburban moms to scare.)

“This is an open invitation for the cartel guys on the border” to start running cannabis dispensaries and competing with brands like the venture capital–backed Marley Natural for the legal market, Johnson intoned. “There are yuge problems.”

This is also where the anti-legalization forces will stand out. They will be the only ones to talk much about cannabis in whatever campaign commercials they can afford (probably very few) and anti-AUMA editorials they can convince newspapers to write (possibly a couple).

As Newsom said: “You do not have to be pro-marijuana to be pro-legalization.” In fact, legalization's standard-bearers will present as anything but weedheads. Doing otherwise is a liability.