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Morain: Gavin Newsom's new campaign: Legalizing pot

  • This artwork by Mark Weber relates to ballot initiatives regarding the legal status of marijuana possession and use.

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 American Civil Liberties Union 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.

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