With legal sales of medical cannabis in California approaching $2 billion, it's hard to understand how and why nobody in the marijuana legalization movement has any money. But it's true.
Legalization's money troubles were evident earlier this week when Reform CA — a coalition of NORML and Americans for Safe Access, the state's marijuana activist groups; industry lobbyists representing dispensaries and growers; and the state NAACP — filed with the Attorney General its proposed language for a Nov. 2016 cannabis legalization voter initiative.
For the NAACP, which had filed its own legalization language in late September, joining Reform CA was about finding “who has the juice for a [successful] initiative,” says Alice Huffman, president of the state NAACP chapter, who signed her name to the effort as a co-proponent. “The NAACP has no money; we just have votes.”
Unfortunately, that puts the NAACP in similar company: Reform CA ($167,000 annual budget in 2014), NORML ($312,000 in 2012, the most recent filings), and Americans for Safe Access (which was $182,000 in debt in 2012, according to income statements filed earlier this year), are all broke, too.
After years of false starts and a summer of well-intentioned but cash-poor measures that never had a shot, Reform CA was supposed to deliver the “consensus measure,” the magic potion that would attract voters, satisfy the political establishment, and attract the $15-$20 million in political venture capital necessary to run and win a statewide campaign.
But as of press time on Tuesday, donors are staying away.
As reported by LA Weekly before the language dropped, legalization advocates with the Drug Policy Alliance and labor union United Food and Commercial Workers are no longer involved with Reform CA, which introduced its ballot language without even sharing its draft with those supposed partners beforehand.
“We look forward to reading it,” Tamar Todd, DPA's state director for cannabis policy, told me on Monday. “Meanwhile, we're still working on our own initiative.”
That is a problem. Experts have repeatedly said that if there are competing legalization initiatives on the ballot, voters will respond by voting all of them down. But there's cause for concern beyond the specter of multiple initiatives. DPA has the significant fundraising clout Reform CA lacks — and, more importantly, access to some of the late Peter Lewis's fortune.
Lewis, the chairman of Progressive Auto Insurance, bankrolled the Washington state legalization initiative in 2012. He spent a total of $40 million on cannabis policy reform over several decades before his death in 2013. Since then, Lewis' heirs have funded a PAC called New Approach, which contributed $1.6 million to last year's successful legalization effort in Oregon.
Without Lewis, who will part with a fortune so California adults can enjoy a smoke in legal peace?
For now, all eyes on are Silicon Valley mogul Sean Parker.
We know the Napster cofounder, former Facebook president, and current billionaire philanthropist is interested in weed. At 35, Parker is the right age, and he already gave $100,000 to legalization effort Prop. 19 in 2010. He is also a close confidante of Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who has served as the state's most visible and vocal proponent of cannabis legalization.
As for what Parker's thinking and what he wants, nobody can say.
Parker, who put $600 million of his reported $2.5 billion fortune in a philanthropic foundation this summer, has said very little on the marijuana issue publicly, aside from a throwaway comment calling earlier efforts “half-baked” in a San Francisco Chronicle story published last year. But he has secured the services of Sacramento campaign veterans Gale Kaufman and Brian Brokaw, as well as former Newsom campaign insider Jason Kinney, according to sources speaking on condition of anonymity (none of the three responded to requests for comment on Monday).
After throwing around $1.7 million in state and local elections in 2014 — including $300,000 in San Francisco — Parker has contributed to two campaigns in California this year: $56,400 to Newsom's 2018 gubernatorial bid, and $500 to District 3 Supervisor Julie Christensen.
He may go off on his own. Sources close to the legalization efforts say that Parker's team could release its own legalization language soon, perhaps as early as next week.
That could explain Newsom's odd silence of late. After going on Real Time with Bill Maher to say that 2016 was the year to legalize — a statement he repeated in September, after the state Legislature passed regulations for the medical cannabis industry — Newsom has said exactly nothing about this or any other hopeful initiative.
Is he waiting on Parker?
If so, he's not alone.