Gavin Newsom is known for his slick speech and magnetic persona, but he's also capable of getting down and dirty. California's lieutenant governor traded his signature suit with the shirt open at the neck for a pullover and jeans on Friday in order to pay a visit to Humboldt County, the heartland of his current constituency: the state's cannabis industry.
Newsom, an avowed supporter of cannabis legalization, is also chairman of an American Civil Liberties Union task force on marijuana policy that will, in 60 days, issue a “final report” on how the drug can be legalized in California. His visit to Garberville in southern Humboldt County, a junket joined by U.S. Rep. Jared Huffman, Humboldt County Sheriff Mike Downey, Assemblyman Jim Wood and other office-holders, is part of a series of meetings convened around the state to gather input from affected parties.
Newsom et al spent the morning touring a local cannabis farm before convening a public meeting, where a capacity crowd of growers, hash makers, edibles bakers and legalization advocates squeezed into a school auditorium for the chance to speak to the decision-makers.
The takeaway? Politicians and the public can't even agree on what to call marijuana, let alone what to do about it.
The movers and shakers from the Emerald Triangle's pot industry, which could measure 10,000 cannabis farms in four or five counties, were all there. There was Casey O'Neill of Happy Day Farms and Emerald Growers' Association chairman Hezekiah Allen. There was high-class seed bank Aficionado Seeds' Leo Stone, and there was legendary hash maker Frenchy Cannoli.
Seeing these industry pillars interact with the political establishment was telling and frustrating.
Both Sheriff Downey and Huffman received some heat from the audience for calling the substance “marijuana” — a word that entered the American lexicon via anti-Mexican demagoguery in the early 20th century — instead of “cannabis.” Once that was “settled” came the real message: nobody knows what to do with it, whatever it's called.
That was frustrating and unsatisfactory to many in attendance, who wanted to hear that a recreational marijuana marketplace in California would keep small Emerald Triangle growers' livelihoods intact and preserve the state's medical cannabis system while somehow also adding to the struggling tax base in rural corners of the state.
Newsom heard all this. He took notes. And he engaged. “That's why I'm here,” he said, over and over. “That's an issue. That's something we gotta look at.”
While some of us in San Francisco may profess to be sick of Newsom, it was clear from the beginning that his star power added significant gravitas and attention to the proceedings. There was a scrum of media on hand, including the San Francisco Chronicle, Sacramento Bee, and broadcast affiliates from up and down the Lost Coast. Young women in the audience audibly reacted when Newsom took the mic.
Newsom, who is planning a run for governor in 2018 has clearly still got it — but what does he have for the marijuana industry?
Honesty. As in, honestly, there's no assurance that legalization will be on the ballot next year, there's no assuracne that if there is an initiative, that it'll be industry friendly — and, honestly, there's no indication that a medical marijuana industry regulation bill currently in the state Legislature will pass.
That bill calls for the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control to regulate marijuana, like what's being done in Oregon and Washington. That's deeply unpopular with the cannabis industry, which wants a combination of the departments of Public Health and Agriculture to regulate cannabis dispensing and growing — organizations that, in California at least, want nothing to do with marijuana.
“This is a major question,” Newsom dutifully said. “Who is gonna oversee this?”
The most illuminating moments came later, when Newsom told reporters what insight he had into Gov. Jerry Brown's thinking on marijuana. Brown's will could very well determine whether or not legalization is going to happen in an atmosphere of well-regulated commerce or the county-by-county shitshow in which cannabis currently operates.
And if you thought you knew, well — Newsom has no idea. “No, I don't. I really don't…. but if there's one thing I've learned, it's that Jerry Brown is the master. He's playing chess while we're all playing checkers… he could lean into this issue at any time.”
That would be nice. It would also be nice for there to be some answers rather than questions. But that's where we are — in a billion-dollar industry full of uncertainty.
Newsom and crew have one more group discussion in Fresno before recommendations are due at the end of July. After that, it's up to the ballot initiative proponents to decide when — and if — to write a proposed legalization initiative.
There are already several legalization initiatives floating around the state, but none are considered to have the fundraising or political clout necessary to run and win a $20 million statewide campaign. Everybody's waiting to see what Prop. 19 survivors Reform California and the Drug Policy Alliance come up with — either alone or in tandem, no one can say.