California marijuana proponents who want to legalize it have a powerful new supporter, one who could help them win in 2016.
Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat and former San Francisco mayor, announced Oct. 17 that he would lead a blue-ribbon panel to research legalization and produce a ballot proposal for the 2016 election. The panel will include experts from medicine, law, politics and law enforcement.
In announcing the group, Newsom said he has long supported legal pot for adults, but lacked the courage to speak up about it until the political tides began to turn in recent years.
“We’ve been sitting here most of my life – literally and not just figuratively – fighting this failed war on marijuana, and the results are pretty overwhelming,” Newsom said. “I’m proudly now asserting a point of view that I’ve had, candidly, for years and didn’t have the courage at the time to express it. And I hope others will do the same, if they believe this is the right thing to do.”
California has long been considered likely grounds for a successful effort to make marijuana legal. Proponents tried but failed in 2010, and efforts are likely in 2014 and 2016, with the latter generally attracting more funding and activist support.
Battles over pot in the state have been fiercer than those anywhere else in the country. Taking a position in favor of pot, even for a liberal Democrat, carries real risk at such a high level of government, as well-funded anti-drug forces may now target Newsom and his panel.
The group was organized by the California branch of the American Civil Liberties Union. A recent study by the ACLU demonstrated that marijuana arrests affect minorities at dramatically greater rates than whites, even though the rate of marijuana use is the same.
Allen Hopper, director of criminal justice and drug policy for the ACLU, said the panel will meet over the next two years. Members will look to Washington and Colorado, both of whose voters legalized pot last year, for guidance in drafting a ballot initiative legalizing cannabis in California.
A large majority of California residents want to make pot legal for adults over 21, according to recent polls. Advocates consider the state a ripe target for legalization in 2016, if not 2014 – along with Arizona, Alaska and Nevada.
According to a poll of 1,200 likely voters conducted by Tulchin Research for the ACLU, 65 percent favor legal marijuana for adults, as long as it can only be purchased in regulated stores.
After announcing the panel, Newsom said Californians are ready for a change.
“Enough’s enough,” he said. “I can’t sit back and support the status quo any longer. I don’t want to be the guy giving the speeches after I’m gone about what we should’ve done and could’ve done.”