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Why Legalization Could Lose 

Wednesday, Jan 13 2016
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Last week, Sean Parker made an honest issue out of cannabis legalization. The former Napster and Facebook whiz kid (and current philanthropic billionaire) plunked down $500,000 towards the Adult Use of Marijuana Act, a legalization measure vying for the Nov. 2016 ballot. The check was a long-awaited confirmation: It had been known as the "Parker Initiative," despite no material support from Parker until last week — and only tepid verbal approval.

Along with $250,000 donations from a political action committee controlled by WeedMaps — the dispensary-finding website that serves as the "Google Maps for Pot" — and from legalization veterans Marijuana Policy Project and the Drug Policy Alliance, to whom much of the credit for legalizing in Washington, Colorado, and Oregon are due, Parker's half-million is the biggest donation to the campaign committee called "Californians to Control, Regulate and Tax Adult Use of Marijuana While Protecting Children."

That unwieldy name gives you an idea of the tightrope one has to walk in order to make the state's biggest cash crop truly and really legal for adults.

For now, the campaign is enjoying several minor victories, including news that recreational weed could yield $1 billion in tax revenue for the state, according to the ballot measure's official state analysis released in December, and the evident squelching of opposition from within the existing legalization movement.

Representatives from Oakland's Reform California, consisting of veterans from 2010's close-but-not-quite Prop. 19, indicated last week that they had abandoned efforts to put their own competing language on the ballot.

"We haven't yet endorsed," said Reform CA chairwoman Dale Sky Jones, who also serves as executive chancellor of Oakland-based cannabis grow college Oaksterdam University. "But we won't oppose."

That may soon change: On Tuesday, Alice Huffman, chairwoman of the California state NAACP as well as Jones' co-chair on Reform CA and erstwhile co-sponsor, announced her endorsement of the AUMA. (As for organized labor, the last political player in cannabis to signal its intentions, a decision has yet to be made.)

But about that tightrope. The clunky name of the Parker effort reveals the line that a successful legalization effort will have to walk just to appear before voters — and also reveals that cannabis is still not a political winner, regardless of what you've heard.

Yes, every time Gallup or the Field poll talk about marijuana, they talk about record support for the issue. But among actual voters — as in the citizens who actually show up to vote — that "record support" is only a bit more than 50 percent, according to veteran pollster Ben Tulchin, who has tested on the issue repeatedly over the years. These voters also tend not to be college students or 25-year-olds wearing "Cookies" gear (people for whom cannabis may as well already be legal in California).

"Basically, a bare majority of people support legalization," Tulchin told SF Weekly recently. "This is not a slam dunk."

This is why it took months for Reform CA to slow its roll and ease off on competing with Parker — and also why the legalization campaign is designed to appeal to people who don't want cannabis to be legal.

All of the things about the AUMA that tie-dyed-in-the-wool marijuana advocates hate — penalties for giving cannabis to children, restrictions on where you can smoke, six-plant and one-ounce possession limits — are the things political experts insist are required for passage.

"There's a majority support for it — if done right," Tulchin says. "If you really adhere to restrictions — to adults 21 and over, if there's a DUI clause in there, and if you really restrict where you can smoke. The more you back away from that, there's the push and pull."

In some ways, it's a near-miracle — and a sign of true commitment to the issue — that AUMA has that $1.25 million to play with at all. One of the bromides of political work is the threshold of 60 percent support. That's the baseline you need to really attract fundraisers, who hate to back a losing effort (and ergo lose money with nothing to show for it). And right now, legalization measures like AUMA are polling in the mid-50s, according to sources close to the effort.

AUMA campaign spokesman Jason Kinney, of Sacramento-based political consultancy California Strategies, would not comment on polling. But polling in the mid-50s would be consistent with Tulchin's findings.

And this is without organized opposition, which has yet to materialize. Both California law enforcement lobbies and U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the nemeses of Prop. 19, have yet to come out publicly against the AUMA.

Right now, that's a good thing — silence from those camps is the best AUMA can hope for.

For now, the loudest opposition to the Parker-backed effort is still from existing medical marijuana businesses and from within the legalization movement itself. For true believers, AUMA does not go far enough — and it's viewed with suspicion solely because of its deep-pocketed backers, who the die-hards accused of wanting to take over the industry.

But this isn't about them. It's about the conservative voters of California — and navigating that tightrope. If the campaign can't, California will remain a semi-legal state — and the global cannabis reform movement will suffer another setback.


About The Author

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts has spent most of his adult life working in San Francisco news media, which is to say he's still a teenager in Middle American years. He has covered marijuana, drug policy, and politics for SF Weekly since 2009.

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