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.
There's also an incongruity between Newsom's causes and his new role in the legalization effort. As lieutenant governor, he has championed economic development and higher education. As San Francisco mayor, he combated homelessness.
Expanded availability of marijuana hardly would make for greater worker productivity. While his stand might play well on college campuses, weed never mixes well with serious academic studies. Homeless people definitely don't need drugs to be more readily accessible.
The reductionist explanation is that Newsom is seeking the next big issue, after having led politicians by marrying same-sex couples at City Hall a decade ago when he became mayor of San Francisco.
The issues are not equivalent. Marriage equality is a matter of civil rights. Marijuana raises no equal-protection question. It is, instead, a matter of commerce, taxation and self-gratification.
I was part of the majority of California voters who voted down the legalization initiative, Proposition 19 of 2010, by a 53.5 percent to 46.5 percent margin. With or without legalization, marijuana is readily available, as it was in my hazy high school days decades ago. But there's a serious public health issue, one that advocates, including Newsom, gloss over.