The greenprint: Gavin Newsom’s report explores pot legalization

What does the Blue Ribbon Commission on Marijuana Policy mean for weed on the 2016 ballot?

Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom’s become the poster boy for pot legalization in California. His commission’s new report is widely praised as a road map to recreational weed.

Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom’s become the poster boy for pot legalization in California. His commission’s new report is widely praised as a road map to recreational weed.

photo illustration by chris friedman

Marijuana is green. Sometimes purple or brown. Even tangerine. But mostly green. That’s a simple, even Seussian approach to pot. This week in California, however, cannabis just got a helluva lot more complicated.

A widely praised report on pot legalization in California released last week warns that recreational weed in the state won’t necessarily mean more green for its financial coffers.

The report, by the Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom-led Blue Ribbon Commission on Marijuana Policy, is a 93-page opus nearly two years in the making. The hype was that it would be a greenprint for legalizing grass in California. But now that the smoke has settled—now that experts and pot activists have had a few days to actually read and dissect the epic—one thing is clear: Legalizing pot has dozens of moving parts, and, little surprise, there will be those who never agree on how to greenlight green bud in the Golden State.

In fact, the only consensus now among cannabis stakeholders is that legalization won’t, and should not be, about the almighty dollar.

“This isn’t going to be a cash cow for the state. It’s not going to solve all our budget woes,” is how Brian McGuigan of ReformCA put it.

ReformCA is the leading contender to get an initiative to legalize pot on the ballot in 2016. There are, as of deadline, five other possible ballot measures in the mix. And some say there likely will be more before the attorney general’s October deadline to submit ballot language. But only ReformCA has retained a signature-gathering outfit to help. It has also performed significantly more outreach than the other groups, according to McGuigan.

ReformCA and even most old-school pot advocates generally support the findings of Newsom’s commission.

Dale Gieringer, a Stanford University Ph.D. who heads the California chapter of the National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws, told SN&R this week that, even though there “weren’t a lot of surprises” in the lieutenant governor’s report, he was nevertheless “pleasantly surprised” by the committee’s research and analysis.

“We think it’s a good report, and we definitely are paying close attention to it,” said Gieringer, who also supports ReformCA group’s initiative effort.

But some pot activists, such as this paper’s resident cannabis expert, The 420 columnist Ngaio Bealum, question whether the Blue Ribbon Commission discovered anything new under the sun. (See SN&R The 420, “Nothing new from Gavin Newsom,” on page 51.)

“The commission’s recommendations are poppycock. … This report contained nothing about how to deal with cities and counties that don’t want to allow marijuana-based businesses, what the tax structure could look like or even a suggestion on plant limits or garden sizes,” Bealum wrote.

“There is so much this commission could have done and it essentially did nothing.”

Jason Collinsworth, with the California Bipartisan Decriminalization of Cannabis Act—one of the six initiatives vying to qualify for the ballot—agrees with Bealum and says he was disappointed by Newsom’s findings.

“Honestly, what it all boils down to is a little bit of a waste of time and taxpayers’ money,” he told SN&R. He says the group didn’t “truly consult the medical-cannabis community” and called a great deal of the findings “out of touch.”

It’s worth noting that the cannabis community has a rich history of being divided on flagship issues (mostly notably in 2010, when Proposition 19’s legalization initiative failed to pass and drew significant criticism from the traditionally anti-prohibitionist bloc). That said, criticism of the commission appears to be the minority view.

McGuigan with ReformCA called the report an “extremely credible, well-thought-out and timely analysis of how to legalize cannabis in California.

“Their thinking is very much in line with our own.”

How to legalize

When one sets aside the praise and harshed mellows and has a peek at what’s actually inside the nearly 100-page tome, the complexity of legalization emerges from the smoke.

The report begins with a warning that the commission is adamant that it does not endorse legalization. There is clearly, however, some semblance of a road map to recreational pot within.

The impetus for the report, back when Newsom kicked it off in October 2013, was to accept the fact that an increasing number of Californians supported the idea of legal weed. In turn, the commission did outreach all over the state—town halls, meetings, testimony, etc.—and finally crafted an analysis of legal marijuana’s opportunities and red flags.

The first point made in the mighty report is that legalization will be a process, not a moment or event. It says that people will need to engage the issue for years to ensure protections for public health, to keep the black market at bay, to cooperate and welcome the old-school pot-industry stakeholders, and to capture the millions of tax dollars this new industry surely will generate.

Of the group’s many goals for legalization and regulation, protecting young people and public safety get the commission’s foremost attention. But there’s also a focus on issues such as protecting the environment from the impacts of marijuana cultivation and production, and also the decriminalization of pot and its impact on “racial and economic disparities.”

In total, the commission makes a whopping 58 goals and recommendations for California policymakers.

NORML’s Gieringer says the biggest challenge for pot in California will be ensuring that the state’s forefathers—industry operators such as the cultivators who’ve worked in the shadows for decades—have a stake in this new Golden State pot economy.

“It’s a serious worry,” he explained. “What we’ve been trying to do is take an illegal market, and take the people who’ve been into it, and get them legal. California has thousands of growers, and generations worth of growers. … Many of whom have wanted to do so legally. It’s important that they get into the legal market.”

He says that, in some of the states, there are only handfuls of approved legal medical-pot growers, and they put down hundreds of thousands to get in on the game. It’s a pay-to-play situation that’s priced out many cannabis pioneers.

Try this in California, he says, and it will simply perpetuate the underground, illegal market. “If you do this [in California], all those people are going to get shut out—and then you’re going to have as many illegal growers afterward as you did beforehand.”

Gieringer also reminded that there’s so much marijuana in this state already. “We don’t really need any new big marijuana plantations in California. We’re exporting as it is.”

Collinsworth says he disagrees that the major drivers of the legalization effort might put forward initiatives that allow counties and local governments to still ban pot. “I live in a banned county. It’s a nightmare to get my medicine,” he explained. He says that his concerns have been “ignored” by ReformCA and the Newsom commission.

Green for green

In the end, it likely all comes down to money.

Even though stakeholders downplay the impact, all of this marijuana will certainly bring in new revenue. Licensing fees for growers and sellers, fines, taxes—the money will be coming in, and in ways the state has yet to experience. The amount of money generated will be minuscule compared to California’s $100 billion general fund. But the new monies could amount to several hundred-million dollars annually.

Money is also the key to success in getting a legalization initiative on the ballot next year.

Gieringer says he feels that this is the right time for pot in California. “I just sense that the public attitude is right, that an intelligently written initiative will pass,” he said. And, short of a huge influx of capital to the opposition from a Sheldon Adelson-type, he’s confident.

McGuigan with ReformCA would not disclose any internal polling, but a Public Policy Institute of California poll from March of this year showed that a slight majority of Californians think pot should be legal (53 percent).

He also warned, however, that California will be a different challenge as compared to the efforts in Colorado and Washington.

“You’ve seen other states go ahead and legalize it. But those states are very different than California—the size of the states, the diversity,” he explained.

“We feel that voters are inclined to vote for this … but it’s not going to be a slam dunk.”