It's not private prisons or Big Pharma that's keeping marijuana illegal in California (though no doubt both benefit big-time from drug prohibition).
It's money, as in a lack of about $3 million to put a voter initiative like the ones that legalized small amounts of cannabis in Colorado or Washington (and failed here in 2010) before voters in the country's richest and most populous state.
Luckily, there are some exceedingly rich people who say they like the idea of legalization. And one of them -- the magnetic Virgin Group magnate Sir Richard Branson, all $5 billion of him -- was asked in San Francisco last night, point-blank if he'd consider writing the check.
He didn't say yes. But, at the same time, the bold and outspoken billionaire didn't say no.
Branson was in town at the New Peoples Cinema in Japantown last night to appear at a free screening of Breaking the Taboo, an anti-drug war film produced by the Virgin founder's son. (The film, a strong condemnation of American drug policy as fallacious and racist, with extra special blame aimed at Republican presidents Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, clocked over 1 million views during a yearlong run for free on YouTube).
The airline mogul and would-be space travel pioneer is also on the honorary board of the Drug Policy Alliance, which hosted a brief panel discussion between Sir Richard and local drug war opponents Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and District Attorney George Gascon -- and which supported a short-lived push to put a legalization effort on the November ballot.
That effort was scuttled in favor of a ballot measure in presidential election year 2016 because, DPA said then that the time just wasn't right -- a line repeated last night by former legalization opponent Newsom, who has recently come around to strongly support legalizing marijuana.
That's not quite the message of Breaking the Taboo, which says very clearly it's well past time. Nor is it the message of any of the other three proposed legalization measures still circulating petitions. They wait only on signatures from voters -- or the money to pay people to collect them -- in order to have the chance to be come law.
$3 million is about what it would take to grab over 500,000 valid signatures from California voters and qualify a ballot initiative. That amount is also about half of 1 percent of $5 billion. In other words: Richard Branson could legalize marijuana in California tomorrow.
A pair of San Jose men with a legalization initiative, who need only a bankroller, asked Branson to do just that. In a letter hand-delivered to Branson, activist John Lee and dispensary operator Dave Hodges -- proponents of the Marijuana Control, Legalization and Revenue Act, which could raise hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue, according to a state estimate -- asked for Branson's financial and personal help.
"California should have been the first [to legalize] and will not see legalization, or these levels of revenue without your help," the letter reads. And they even lowballed him!
"We are asking your help to raise the $2 million needed to guarantee MCLR qualifies for the 2014 ballot," they wrote.
Branson, who was swamped by media and by well-wishers and had no noticeable security aside from one of the most-businesslike PR handlers we have ever seen, told SF Weekly that nobody had asked him to do something like that -- but he might mull it over.
"Certainly, I'd have a look at it," he said, after wondering aloud if he, as a British subject, would be allowed to contribute heavily to a California ballot initiative (by our reading of election law, he is).
"But it's not something I've been asked to do," he added.
Until yesterday. So, Sir Richard: on your way to space, care to get California lifted?