On election night, I attended the party for Prop 64 hosted by California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom at Verso, a large club in San Francisco. With the marijuana legalization initiative substantially ahead in the polls, I pretty much expected an easy victory with a lot of back-patting, hugging and toasts to a new age of cannabis in California.
Prop 64 won with 56% of the vote in a race that was called just 15 minutes after the polls closed. But instead of being ecstatic when he announced the results to the crowd, Newsom, a major architect of the measure, looked worried and rushed, his eyes continually fixed on the television screens above the bar. He said a few words about the importance of legalization, and then his voice trailed off.
Donald Trump was holding strong in the battleground states. As the presidential election began to slip away from Hillary Clinton, the mood of the night shifted from congratulatory to anxious. Suddenly the conversation had changed, and we were being asked what a Trump presidency would mean for legalization.
Legalizing marijuana in California was a costly, mentally taxing endeavor, which suffered many of the same fates as the presidential election: dissemination of fake news, collusion with the enemy and people voting against their own interests. What we didn’t realize at the time was that the passage of Prop 64 could help protect the other legal states in the age of Trump.
Stoners Against Legalization
Early on in the campaign, some of the “pro-legalization, just not this legalization” rabble-rousers from the Prop 19 days resurfaced; six years ago, that initiative, similar to Prop 64, was on the ballot and lost. Dubbed “Stoners Against Legalization” (SALs), they’re a mix of “free the weed” folks who won’t support any initiative unless it regulates cannabis like tea; dispensary owners who have a monopoly on the patient population in their towns and fear competition; and pot farmers.
Many of the marijuana farmers in opposition felt this way because of decades of prohibition and a genuine distrust of regulation and regulators—and who could blame them? However, some farmers object to any regulations because they mistreat the land, divert water and don’t adequately pay their workers. In 2016, more farmers favored legalization than in 2010, which was due to a desire to finally come out of the shadows, and was also encouraged by the passage of MCRSA, the state-level medical cannabis regulation program, in 2015; MCRSA regulations are coming whether Prop 64 passed or not.
Things were very different this time around. SALs quickly promoted propaganda via memes and posted fake news stories on Facebook. They engaged in personal attacks on supporters of the initiative with allegations of financial payoffs from the likes of Monsanto and George Soros. For those not involved in the movement, it became hard to discern what was accurate.
Campaigning with the Enemy
On Oct. 27, Smart Approaches to Marijuana founder Kevin Sabet scheduled a press conference at the Hilton in San Francisco. He was flanked by SALs Jamie Kerr, who owns 530 Collective, a dispensary in Shasta Lake; Sean Kiernan, a veteran (who publicly harassed me and a group of veterans during a Prop 64 press event); and Patricia Smith, the Chapter Chair of Nevada County Americans for Safe Access (ASA). Here was Sabet—the Harry J. Anslinger of modern day marijuana prohibition—colluding with his enemies to defeat 64.
This was not the only example of people in the industry scheming to protect their own interests. One of the most vicious opponents of Prop 64, Kevin P. Saunders, actually admitted to being paid by law enforcement to spread intentionally false and misleading information about the initiative on the Internet. Saunders owns an online dispensary, Coasterdam, and unsuccessfully ran for mayor of Marina, Calif. In 2014, he was convicted of harassment and Election Code violations and sentenced to six months in jail, and, more recently, faced criminal charges for selling cannabis (that charge was dropped).
Voting Against Your Interests
When it comes to restorative and juvenile justice, Prop 64 is the most progressive marijuana law in the country. It allows for sentence reductions and eliminations based on the new regulations. Records can be expunged, probations terminated and deportations stopped. Minors, once charged as adults for marijuana crimes, will now be charged with infractions, punishable by counseling and community service.
In addition, Prop. 64 allows people convicted of drug felonies to obtain licenses in the new industry; and a community fund of $50 million annually will be created to provide grants to organizations serving those most impacted by the drug war. No other state has gone this far in the service of social justice. Organizations with decades of experience in drug policy and social justice, such as the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) and the ACLU, used all of their cards at the drafting table to advocate for these provisions, often having to justify why they were necessary.
The DPA and ACLU have no hidden agenda, yet during the campaign they were lambasted for being “Big Marijuana”—working with Monsanto, trying to corner the market, out of touch with the real struggles and so forth. I heard more than one person respond to the endorsement of the California NAACP as meaningless because “they don’t represent me.”
The insults and accusations hurled at DPA funder George Soros were maddening. No one has done more to fund progressive activism than Soros; many of us would not be able to claim activism as our job if it weren’t for him. But during the Prop 64 campaign, he was labeled as Illuminati, a Monsanto sympathizer and all-around evil.
So How Did We Win?
Despite the efforts of the SALs, Prop 64 triumphed, largely due to Latinos, Asians and seniors. This should not be surprising; support for legalization in the U.S. is at 60%. The good news is that legalizing marijuana in the world’s sixth-largest economy will make it really hard to put the genie back in the bottle in Oregon, Washington, Alaska and Colorado, and those states will be no match for California when it comes to cannabis economy and scale (with $1 billion a year in projected tax revenue). Which begs the question: Will President-elect Trump direct federal marijuana policy to match the will of the states and the public? Or will he delegate the matter to his drug warrior nominee for Attorney General, Jeff Sessions? The latter choice could be disastrous for marijuana in America. The Trump administration will likely not be big on supporting state-level funding for environmental protection, or services for at-risk youth and the mentally ill. If the new administration doesn’t stand in the way, California will be able to fund its own programs, thanks to marijuana.
What Happens Now?
Take a minute to revel in the victory in California, and the three other states—Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada—that legalized adult use on Nov. 8. Don’t let Trump steal that from us. It’s time once again to fight for our rights as cannabis consumers, patients and citizens, and to work to preserve the gains we’ve made in the last eight years. Brace for the possible return of stop-and-frisk, mandatory minimums and three-strikes policies. Arm yourself with information about our rights, and call out the opposition for what it is: fascism, white supremacy and bigotry. And now, in California, you can do that while enjoying legal weed.
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