Kids, Cartels, and Marijuana DUIs: Gavin Newsom outlines the trouble with marijuana legalization

Matthew Davies

If there was an election in California today, marijuana would be legal in the state tomorrow.

Roughly 55 percent of the state's likely voters support legalizing cannabis, according to the most recent Public Policy Institute poll. That's legalization's strongest showing yet in California — where just five years ago, 54 percent of voters said “no thanks” to legalized and taxed recreational cannabis.

Legal weed is no longer an underground concern of the counterculture. It's 2015, and marijuana is mainstream: Money has a funny way of “legitimizing” just about anything. Four states are already years ahead of the country's innovation capital when it comes to having a successful recreational cannabis marketplace. An increasing number of influential people realize it's well past time for California to get on board with the multibillion-dollar legal cannabis market. This leads to another, more important question than the ones posited in the poll:

What kind of legalization?

That answer will determine whether or not people such as Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom will continue advocating for legalized weed, making him marijuana's highest-placed public supporter.

Love him or hate him, legalization needs the likes of Newsom, the presumptive favorite to succeed Gov. Jerry Brown in 2018. Without him, you can forget about getting richer, more famous people on board. And without them — and their bank accounts with lots and lots of zeroes — you can forget about ending California's 100-year experiment with waging war on a plant.

After all, there have been several very rational legalization proposals in the state since 2010. All failed from a lack of funding.

Newsom is not a legalization die-hard. He has concerns that are shared by policy experts, academics, and other wonks, as well as voters who are scared shitless of a marijuana republic. Last week, a summation of these concerns was outlined in a long-awaited report produced by a “blue ribbon commission” of experts, of which Newsom served as chair.

Their questions will annoy free-marketers, libertarians, and social justice warriors, who would say that legalization must happen because it's the profitable, rational, and equitable thing to do. What's right and what's profitable doesn't matter for Newsom's eggheads, who say legalization creates three serious conundrums: kids, cartels, and DUIs.

This is not news. Moderate and conservative voters have long opposed weed over fears of stoned kids, empowered gangsters, and bong-toking school bus drivers. To succeed at the polls in 2016, a legalization initiative will have to somehow confront and soothe these fears.

If it doesn't, Newsom, who hopped on the legalization train in December 2012 after voters in Colorado and Washington demonstrated that the issue is a winner, can be counted out. “[I]f it's not the right one,” Newsom told interviewers last week, “I'm not going to do it.” And why would he? Who wants to be the public face of a defeat?

Newsom's panel is encouraging for anyone who wants legal weed in California. Most of the worries can be assuaged with some data.

As Colorado and Washington have shown, recreational cannabis has not yet destroyed the best minds of a generation or created a cartel playground where everyone driving a car is stoned. The panel also gives credence to reefer madness-style paranoia. Many of the same fears that anti-legalization advocates had in 1996, when medical cannabis loomed, are being repeated. The panel also falls short of calling on policymakers to be honest and remind voters that these bad things are already happening.

Kids today have no problem finding weed. Some 44 percent of 12th graders across the country say they've smoked pot, according to the National Institute of Drug Abuse. Marijuana is easier to buy than alcohol for most kids, because it is illegal. As Newsom is fond of saying: Cartels don't card.

Kids are high now — and, if we bother to be honest with ourselves, we'll admit that they'll keep getting high. Legalization will not keep adolescents away from marijuana or any other substance that's taxed and controlled. Right now, kids are smoking pot, looking at porn, and drinking beer. To use “saving the kids” as an excuse to hold up legalization is trickery that, unfortunately, still works.

There are unsavory characters in finance, technology, sports, and everything else “legitimate.” It is highly likely that criminals will dabble in marijuana following legalization, especially if regulations are too strict.

And, like it or not, some people will drive while stoned. They will cause accidents, and people will die. But, as Colorado and Washington have shown, it's nothing like the death toll caused by the country's appetite for alcohol.

What worked in Colorado and Washington will work here (if someone can be convinced to write the checks). There, legalization was sold as sound public policy that could also raise some money — law-abiding social justice with decent job prospects.

We already knew the questions; what we need now is answers. Newsom is more on-point than his panel. He isn't “sure we will ever get everyone together on this” — which is the wisest and most succinct summation of the situation possible.

Rules for legalization can't be written to appease the hard-liners who still believe in “gateway drug” theory. Someone will use the first instance of a kid sneaking a parent's stash and getting behind the wheel as sufficient reason to blow-up the entire experiment.

That's no reason to keep the status quo. Newsom calls California's current situation “the worst of all worlds.” To move past this, voters need gentle and constant reminders that even flawed legalization is better than failed prohibition. Not to mention eternal discussion.

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