Pubdate: Sun, 27 Oct 2013
Source: Sacramento Bee (CA)
Copyright: 2013 The Sacramento Bee
Author: Dan Morain


Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom is a deft politician. So when he announced that 
he would lead the latest campaign to legalize marijuana in 
California, the movement gained an instant level of legitimacy.

Newsom calls the war on drugs an abject failure and believes most 
politicians share his view, though they "say one thing publicly and 
another thing privately."

"If it was good politics, you'd have a lot more politicians out 
front," Newsom told me last week. "I can't defend the status quo. I 
feel an obligation to make a better argument."

Marijuana has been all but legal in California since 1996, when 
voters approved it for medical use. That has turned into a mess, with 
some growers denuding hillsides and using chemicals on what they 
claim is medicine, while bottom-feeding physicians blithely sell 
scripts, mostly to young men who claim one ailment or another.

Newsom believes California can do better by legalizing the weed, and 
licensing, regulating and taxing growers, distributors and retailers. 
Details to come.

His immediate allies include the ACLU and academics, with likely 
funding for any initiative from billionaire legalization advocates 
George Soros and Peter Lewis, the chairman of Progressive Auto Insurance.

In the initial announcement, the ACLU said Newsom would lead a "blue 
ribbon panel" of experts who would spend 18 to 24 months studying how 
Colorado and Washington implement marijuana legalization, and learn 
from those states' experiences.

The Oct. 17 press release promised policy "white papers," 
"round-table discussions" and "town hall events," presumably leading 
to a 2016 ballot measure. That still may happen. But Newsom told me 
the measure could be on the ballot in November 2014.

The reason has little to do with policy and much to do with politics. 
New polls including one by Gallup last week showing attitudes are 
shifting fast in favor of legalization. In September, a Public Policy 
Institute of California poll said 60 percent of likely voters back 
legalization, though Latinos oppose it by a wide margin, as do Republicans.

Newsom, who plans to seek re-election as lieutenant governor in 2014 
and likely will run for governor in 2018, is taking a risk. If pot 
becomes legal and the regulation becomes problematic, he'd be tarred 
as the politician who led the effort.

There's also an incongruity between Newsom's causes and his new role 
in the legalization effort. As lieutenant governor, he has championed 
economic development and higher education. As San Francisco mayor, he 
combated homelessness.

Expanded availability of marijuana hardly would make for greater 
worker productivity. While his stand might play well on college 
campuses, weed never mixes well with serious academic studies. 
Homeless people definitely don't need drugs to be more readily accessible.

The reductionist explanation is that Newsom is seeking the next big 
issue, after having led politicians by marrying same-sex couples at 
City Hall a decade ago when he became mayor of San Francisco.

The issues are not equivalent. Marriage equality is a matter of civil 
rights. Marijuana raises no equal-protection question. It is, 
instead, a matter of commerce, taxation and self-gratification.

I was part of the majority of California voters who voted down the 
legalization initiative, Proposition 19 of 2010, by a 53.5 to 46.5 
percent margin. With or without legalization, marijuana is readily 
available, as it was in my hazy high school days decades ago. But 
there's a serious public health issue, one that advocates, including 
Newsom, gloss over.

"Any cannabis use before age 14 is a risk factor for developing a 
psychotic illness," said UC Davis Medical School Professor Cameron 
Carter, a psychiatrist who focuses on young people who are severely 
mentally ill. "For people who have schizophrenia, marijuana can cause 
more symptoms."

Newsom says marijuana is less harmful than alcohol. That may be true 
for some people. But just as chronic alcoholics can buy Thunderbird 
at corner stores in the Tenderloin, schizophrenics could buy 
legalized marijuana at whatever retail outlet would sell it.

"You can't bring to widespread availability another mind-altering 
substance without social consequences," said Sacramento lobbyist John 
Lovell, who represents the California Police Chiefs Association, 
which has opposed legalization.

Whether the campaign is in 2014 or 2016, Newsom believes winning 
would be the easy part. Grappling with policy issues will be tougher. 
He posed some questions. I had others.

"How can we administer it in a safe way and make sure it is kept out 
of the hands of kids, that there is transparency, and that people 
don't drive under the influence?" he asked.

Would its use be legal in public places, in backyards and in shared 
space in apartments? What would be the legal age? Newsom thinks the 
age ought to be 21; others may push for 18.

What's the appropriate tax rate? Would tax revenue flow to the state 
general fund or be earmarked for drug treatment, research, or, the 
worst idea, for schools. Please spare us from another cynical 
And-the-kids-win-too pitch.

Would cities and counties be able to opt out of allowing marijuana 
retailers to operate in their jurisdictions? That would be 
reasonable, given how localities retain the right to ban plastic bags 
and regulate tobacco use more strictly than the state.

Newsom cloaks his arguments in lofty talk of criminal justice reform. 
But California long ago decriminalized possession. Prisons are not 
crowded because marijuana use is an infraction.

Newsom suggested there is a First Amendment right to advertise. If 
so, the state probably could not stop marijuana dealers from aiming 
pitches at teenagers, subtly and directly, just as alcohol and 
cigarette companies long have done, despite their claims to the contrary.

As any parent should, Newsom frets about how to prevent his young 
children from smoking weed when they become teenagers. I found value 
in being able to tell my kids that marijuana is illegal, along with 
saying this conversation was about them, not me. Even though it would 
be illegal for kids to buy marijuana, they'd see it's legal for 
adults and assume it's OK.

Then there's the matter of campaign donations. Indian tribes have 
become dominant political players since their casinos became legal in 
2000. Nothing would stop rich and newly legitimate marijuana dealers 
from spreading their green in the Capitol, influencing policy and 
shaping regulation to their liking.

Newsom said he opposes legalizing heroin, meth and other drugs, 
though plenty of people support total legalization. Where to draw the line?

Legalization may be inevitable. But there should be no rush to place 
an initiative measure on the 2014 ballot. Newsom should take the time 
to learn from Washington and Colorado's mistakes. There will be many.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom