Prop 64 Redux: How the West Was Won

prop 64

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.

Prop 64Many 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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About Amanda Reiman

Amanda Reiman is Manager of Marijuana Law and Policy at the Drug Policy Alliance.

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1 Comment
  1. Matthew Meyer 2 months ago

    There are a number of positive aspects to Prop 64, as noted here.

    But there are a number of negatives that aren’t noted in this caricature of those who opposed the law.

    For all the crowing about the failures of prohibition, for example, the campaign for the new law was based on the premise that cannabis is “a dangerous and ill-advised” substance, and needs to be tightly regulated for that reason.

    The truth is that the harms of cannabis, as demonstrated by what quality science does exist, have been greatly exaggerated in public discussion of the topic. This is largely the result of federal propaganda aimed at abetting a culture war over the plant, but the proponents of Prop 64 chose to accommodate, rather than challenge this rhetoric, as the statement from official proponent Dr. Donald Lyman shows.

    By any rational and informed assessment, cannabis is *not* a particularly dangerous substance, and it would be far more helpful, if the goal is to begin to heal our society’s sick relationship with the plant, to include in the law something akin to the Truth and Reconciliation commission established in South Africa to help that country’s people to begin to heal from the damage Apartheid caused there.

    I wonder whether healing our dysfunctional relationship to cannabis was a significant goal of the initiative. There was a lot of noise about social justice, to be sure, but this focused on impacts on communities of color in urban areas of California–areas home to the demographics that the author notes were crucial to passing the initiative. That was a brilliant political strategy, and my hat is off to the consultants hired by DPA and the other groups behind the initiative, who surely earned their pay.

    For people living in California’s rural, cannabis-producing counties, however, the initiative offered very little. It never challenged the notion of local control, for example. That means that large swaths of prime outdoor cannabis growing territory will have neither legal cannabis for sale, nor allow their residents to take advantage of the economic opportunities offered by the law change. These are counties, such as Shasta, Butte, and Tehama, with worrisome lack of economic opportunity and some of the state’s highest rates of health problems tied to opioid use, including overdose death–a phenomenon that research shows is lessened by access to cannabis. In these places, the war on weed will continue.

    If social justice were a guiding concern, these concerns, which I personally have shared with the author of this article, would have been more prominent, or so I can’t help but imagine. Surely the analysts hired by the Prop 64 campaign knew that they would not get very many votes for the initiative from these areas. Did they ignore these places because they knew there weren’t too many votes there? These valley and foothill counties, despite the large (if unacknowledged) role cannabis plays in their economies, are dominated by neo-conservative politics that makes them officially anti-cannabis. A statewide movement that actively worked in these areas could have done a lot to help those of us who live in these areas to turn the tide; instead, people in the Northstate felt thrown under the bus.

    It’s hard not to be cynical about the unfolding of this process. As they say, he who pays the piper calls the tune. The new rules favor well-capitalized, indoor production of cannabis in urban areas. I fully expect to see further economic deterioration in the rural areas of Northern California outside the Emerald Triangle as a result of Prop 64’s passage, and continued persecution of outdoor cannabis farmers in places where the new law doesn’t reach. Growers there, regardless of the environmental soundness of their practices, will have nowhere to sell their cannabis but on the black market, and will come under the cross hairs of law enforcement agencies that are already eager to blame them for local problems.

    Early on in the process, I shared these concerns with the author of this article, only to see them dismissed as insignificant, or else intractable, or at the least too much of a delay in a delicate moment when California needed to lead the way in the broader effort to reform cannabis laws. Time will tell whether this reform is built on a sustainable foundation. My impression is that many people in advantageous market positions didn’t want to wait to consolidate their economic opportunities, and to force out northerly competition. This sense was compounded by the discovery of this article’s author’s unacknowledged conflicts of interest, in which family members involved in the cannabis trade stood to benefit from a more open market in California, regardless of the cost to others’ livelihoods and freedoms.

    We have a lot of work to do to construct a healthier relationship as a society with the cannabis plant, and, while hope does spring eternal, I am skeptical that this initiative has done more than lay the groundwork for mercenary gain by a relative few, along with a continuing and virulent culture war. That is really too bad.

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