New­som tak­ing a gam­ble on pot

Lieu­tenant gover­nor is used to con­tro­versy, but fall­out now could af­fect his 2018 hopes.

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Seema Mehta

A few weeks into his first term as mayor of San Fran­cisco in 2004, Gavin New­som made a bold and con­tro­ver­sial de­ci­sion, order­ing the city-county clerk to vi­o­late state law and is­sue mar­riage li­censes to same-sex cou­ples.

New­som was ul­ti­mately vin­di­cated, with gay mar­riage gain­ing public ac­cep­tance and be­com­ing legal in Cal­i­for­nia and three dozen other states. But at the time, even some of his sup­port­ers thought he was com­mit­ting po­lit­i­cal sui­cide.

As New­som, now lieu­tenant gover­nor, pre­pares for a gu­ber­na­to­rial cam­paign in 2018, he finds him­self at a sim­i­lar cross­roads. This time, his is­sue is the le­gal­iza­tion of mar­i­juana for recre­ational pur­poses.

New­som, a Demo­crat, is

the high­est-rank­ing state of­fi­cial to sup­port le­gal­iza­tion. If an ex­pected 2016 bal­lot mea­sure to le­gal­ize, reg­u­late and tax mar­i­juana in­cludes safe­guards that he views as cru­cial, New­som will en­dorse it and ef­fec­tively be the public face of the ef­fort.

Although le­gal­iza­tion would prob­a­bly be popular with lib­eral and young vot­ers, oth­ers New­som must court in his run for gover­nor could present a chal­lenge.

“He could mo­ti­vate large num­bers of young peo­ple who aren’t regular vot­ers to turn out for him,” said Dan Sch­nur, direc­tor of USC’s Jesse M. Unruh In­sti­tute of Pol­i­tics. “But tak­ing a lead­er­ship role on this could make older swing vot­ers ner­vous, even if they agree with him on the is­sue. It’s a po­ten­tially risky play.”

Vot­ers in Cal­i­for­nia le­gal­ized med­i­cal mar­i­juana in 1996 but 14 years later voted against recre­ational use, 53.5% to 46.5%. Since then, polling has shown that public sup­port for le­gal­iz­ing pot has grown, reach­ing 53% in a March sur­vey by the Public Pol­icy In­sti­tute of Cal­i­for­nia — a record high in the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s sur­veys.

Democrats, whites, blacks and peo­ple ages 18 to 34 showed the great­est sup­port, with more than 6 in 10 fa­vor­ing le­gal­iza­tion. Older Cal­i­for­ni­ans were more skep­ti­cal. The state’s two fastest-grow­ing voter groups, Lati­nos and Asians, strongly op­posed it.

Even among Demo­cratic pol­i­cy­mak­ers, the mat­ter re­mains con­tro­ver­sial: Both U.S. Sen. Dianne Fe­in­stein and Gov. Jerry Brown op­pose le­gal­iza­tion.

“How many peo­ple can get stoned and still have a great state or a great na­tion? The world’s pretty danger­ous, very com­pet­i­tive,” Brown said on “Meet the Press” last year. “I think we need to stay alert, if not 24 hours a day, more than some of the pot­heads might be able to put to­gether.”

New­som ex­presses sup­port for le­gal­iza­tion in terms of crim­i­nal and so­cial jus­tice, say­ing African Amer­i­can and Latino youths are more likely than oth­ers to be crim­i­nally pe­nal­ized for recre­ational mar­i­juana use. He in­sists he has never smoked mar­i­juana and hates the smell.

“This is not ... a flip­pant de­bate about ston­ers and pot­heads. This is se­ri­ous stuff, and I don’t want to be part of the sta­tus quo,” New­som said in an in­ter­view, brush­ing off po­ten­tial po­lit­i­cal im­pli­ca­tions.

“I’m happy to take that risk be­cause I think peo­ple will be ben­e­fited in a pro­found way if we do this right…. Peo­ple like me, we come and go, we’re a dime a dozen. This is a prin­ci­ple that will tran­scend [us].”

New­som’s crit­ics say he is seiz­ing on the mat­ter out of po­lit­i­cal con­ve­nience.

“Gavin New­som has a his­tory of look­ing for some­one else’s pa­rade that he can run to the front of, in or­der to pro­mote him­self,” said Ron Nehring, a for­mer state Repub­li­can Party chair­man who un­suc­cess­fully chal­lenged New­som in his 2014 re­elec­tion bid. “Cer­tainly this is the lat­est ex­am­ple of that.”

Nehring ar­gues that there are ways to ad­dress con­cerns about how the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem treats users with­out in­creas­ing con­sump­tion of mar­i­juana, which he laments would be the nat­u­ral out­come of le­gal­iza­tion.

As mayor of San Fran­cisco, New­som had a his­tory of court­ing con­tro­versy.

He was burned in ef­figy when his “Care Not Cash” pro­gram re­placed sub­si­dies for the home­less with hous­ing and sup­port ser­vices. He ex­panded city health­care for San Fran­cisco res­i­dents, re­gard­less of im­mi­gra­tion sta­tus, pre­ex­ist­ing con­di­tions and em­ploy­ment sta­tus — the first uni­ver­sal health­care pro­gram in the na­tion.

How­ever, same-sex mar­riage — popular lo­cally but toxic for Democrats na­tion­ally back then — has best de­fined his po­lit­i­cal per­sona.

When the Cal­i­for­nia Supreme Court in 2008 up­held same-sex mar­riage, an ebul­lient New­som de­clared at a San Fran­cisco City Hall news con­fer­ence: “This door’s wide open now. It’s go­ing to hap­pen, whether you like it or not!”

New­som’s procla­ma­tion be­came the cen­ter­piece of a tele­vi­sion ad by pro­po­nents of a suc­cess­ful bal­lot mea­sure later that year to de­fine mar­riage as be­tween a man and a woman.

Demo­cratic con­sul­tant Garry South is among those who thought New­som’s foray into gay mar­riage was “po­lit­i­cal death.” But as an ad­vi­sor to New­som’s short­lived gu­ber­na­to­rial run in 2009, he found that vot­ers in fo­cus groups viewed New­som’s move as “an act of con­science” — pre­cisely be­cause there was no po­lit­i­cal ben­e­fit to it.

“There’s al­ways a down­side to be­ing out front on a con­tro­ver­sial or even semi-con­tro­ver­sial public pol­icy is­sue,” South said. “But I got to give New­som credit. He had a cer­tain amount of pre­science about the same-sex mar­riage is­sue that no one else at the time had.”

New­som is ap­proach­ing mar­i­juana le­gal­iza­tion far more cau­tiously.

He chairs a com­mis­sion of law en­force­ment, med­i­cal ex­perts and oth­ers that was cre­ated by the Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union of North­ern Cal­i­for­nia to study the is­sue.

The group re­cently re­leased a re­port list­ing dozens of ar­eas of in­quiry, in­clud­ing how mar­i­juana should be taxed, how to as­sess driv­ers un­der the in­flu­ence of the drug, and how the sub­stance could be ad­ver­tised and sold to con­sumers with­out in­creas­ing its use by teenagers.

Public in­put on th­ese top­ics will be so­licited across the state over the next three months.

“I want to see it done right, and that’s why I’m telling all th­ese groups I want to be sup­port­ive of a bal­lot ini­tia­tive, but it has to be the right one,” New­som said.

“We have to be accountable and re­spon­si­ble for mak­ing sure that we ad­dress the in­tended and un­in­tended con­se­quences of any ef­fort to le­gal­ize, tax and reg­u­late mar­i­juana for adults.

“It’s not good enough to put some­thing on the bal­lot and begin af­ter the fact to ask those ques­tions.”

Bruce Cain, a po­lit­i­cal science pro­fes­sor at Stan­ford Uni­ver­sity, said it was wise for New­som to an­tic­i­pate fall­out from a le­gal­iza­tion pro­posal or its im­ple­men­ta­tion.

“If he’s go­ing to be the lead per­son, the last thing he needs is for this to blow up for him,” Cain said.

‘This is not ... a flip­pant de­bate about ston­ers and pot­heads. This is se­ri­ous stuff, and I don’t want to be part of the sta­tus quo.’

—GAVIN NEW­SOM , lieu­tenant gover­nor

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