The Weed Vote: Politicians Can Embrace Marijuana and Not Risk Their Jobs. For Now, They Can Also Safely Ignore It

Power players in Sacramento are finally taking Nate Bradley's phone calls.

It only took a few years, a couple billion dollars in future business potential, and as many as one million votes.

In 2010, the former Northern California sheriff's deputy was a toxic commodity. A combination of budget cuts and mental strain had put him out of law enforcement. His choice of a second career, an ex-cop preaching the value of cannabis and the foolishness of the drug war, meant politicians wanted nothing to do with him.

This has changed. “I've had two or three members of Congress come up to me and ask, 'Are you running an initiative? We really need the votes,'” Bradley says from his Sacramento office, where he's now half the full-time paid staff of the California Cannabis Industry Association.

He isn't blowing smoke. Other Capitol staffers say marijuana industry types have become some of the most popular people in the room. Even aides to straight-laced law-and-order types are taking their business cards. “They're saying, 'I can't work with you yet, but I want to know you,'” an Assembly aide tells me.

This makes sense. Power in America originates in two places: money and votes. And as a billion-dollar industry — a 2010 estimate pegged the state's pot crop, illegal and legal, at $14.8 billion, seven times as big as wine; state tax collectors peg legal weed sales at around $1 billion — with at least 750,000 card-carrying medical marijuana users around the state, cannabis has plenty of both.

The weed vote was here all along. Failed legalization measure Prop. 19 received more votes than Republican gubernatorial hopeful Meg Whitman in 2010. The federal Justice Department's crackdown on state-legal medical weed, active in California in 2011, never quite spread to swing state Colorado, where legalization was on the ballot (and where President Barack Obama picked up electoral votes in 2012).

Within six weeks of Colorado and Washington going legal, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom declared his support for legalization to the New York Times — just two years after he'd opposed it. At the same time, poll after poll revealed record support across the country for change on cannabis. The weed vote hadn't arrived; it had become impossible to ignore.

With this proven base of support, politicians can declare support for ending marijuana prohibition in the best way possible: safely. “It's becoming less and less of a liability,” says political consultant Jim Ross, who managed Newsom's first run for San Francisco mayor in 2003. “There's no negative. That's a big deal.”

The consequence is that marijuana is now being used without getting pushed across the goal line by the politicians, who say that legalization must come via the ballot.

And meanwhile, big-time names, Democrat and Republican alike, still ignore or trivialize drug reform when they feel the urge.

Whenever marijuana is on the ballot, a youthful, center-left voting bloc turns out. And it's not small: One exit poll Bradley saw after Prop. 19 said that 10 percent of voters in California came out to vote just for weed, he says. That's a million marijuana votes.

Combined with aggressive campaigning from cannabis activists on her behalf, pot voters may have given California's Attorney General Kamala Harris the edge in her narrow win in 2010 (she won by 75,000 votes, or half a percentage point).

However, weed is not the top issue with most voters. It's not even in the top ten, Ross says. Hence Gov. Jerry Brown's silly and regrettable old-man fears that legalizing weed would lead to a state of non-productive “potheads” ripe for the picking by the likes of China. There's not yet enough juice to make a pot-hater pay.

This is ceding the field to fringe candidates. In California, that means marijuana-friendly Republicans.

Harris' long-shot challenger in the Nov. 4 election, Ron Gold, has made marijuana his signature issue {see related story on page 14). And at the same time the state GOP (or what's left of it) has been a reliable roadblock to regulating the state's marijuana industry in Sacramento, Republican political consultants are telling wannabe lawmakers in Southern California that decriminalization measures could help them get elected.

In the East Bay, where marijuana dispensaries are among the biggest taxpayers in Oakland and Berkeley, cannabis has some decent clout. Compare that to San Francisco, where nobody has touched the issue of marijuana at City Hall for several years.

Marijuana is a nonstarter with Mayor Ed Lee. But so are innovative ideas on anything other than the housing and affordability crises. If it's not about building housing, Lee can't afford to hear it, insiders say.

Weed is a sideshow even in the only interesting local race for elected office, where the winner will succeed California's most marijuana-friendly lawmaker.

One of termed-out Assemblyman Tom Ammiano's first moves upon reaching Sacramento in 2009 was to introduce a short-lived and fruitless marijuana legalization initiative. It went nowhere, but it set the tone.

Local activists say there are about 10,000 solid pot votes in San Francisco. We could find out: David Chiu, the frontrunner to replace Ammiano, skipped his meeting with the city's pot-friendly Democratic club. David Campos received their endorsement.

And he may need it.

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