Gavin Newsom Vows to Support Marijuana Legalization on 2016 Ballot

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By Tara Golshan

“I happen to believe that marijuana is a helluva lot more benign than heroin,” Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom said at a luncheon in Marin County on Tuesday, where he pledged to back whichever initiative makes it onto the 2016 ballot.

Newsom is currently leading an American Civil Liberties Union task force that is evaluating the many facets of cannabis legalization. The committee is in the process of researching the potential impact of marijuana legalization in California, studying the complexities of taxing and regulating the drug for adults. It hopes to release a report on the matter by the end of the year.

In a recent interview with KQED Newsroom’s Thuy Vu, Newsom said he has never ingested marijuana. He doesn’t like the smell.

“I don’t like drug abuse, or drug use. That said, I dislike the ‘war on drugs’ more,” Newsom said. “It is a war on people of color, it is a war on poor people, and it is an outrage.”

Newsom said the federal government’s efforts to legislate marijuana are not working, and the inability to consistently and meaningfully regulate the drug is a driving force behind the task force’s research.


While the past 40 years have been spent “drumming the beat to the 'war on drugs,’ ” drugs are more “plentiful, more powerful and potent” than ever, Newsom said, adding it is time to question the socioeconomic discrimination inherent in marijuana-related incarceration.

But with this failure comes opportunity. Newsom believes marijuana legalization is the nation’s opportunity to own up to the past, putting an end to the unnecessary expansion of the criminal justice system.

Over that past decade, polls have increasingly shown public approval of marijuana policy reform across the political aisle. In 2014, a Pew Research Center poll found 54 percent of Americans favored the legalization of marijuana usage. According to the poll, although legalization continues to be a more liberal viewpoint, both Democrats and Republicans agree that federal enforcement of punitive marijuana laws is not worth the cost.

Despite statistics from Columbia University’s Center for Addiction and Substance Abuse, which demonstrate addictive properties in marijuana for 9 percent of adult users, Newsom said the idea that the federal government classifies marijuana side by side with heroin and LSD, and above methamphetamine and cocaine, is “absurd.” However, concerns about legalization, in terms of health or otherwise, are merited, Newsom said.

In 2010, when Californians voted down Proposition 19 (the Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis Act), Newsom said he was too “cowardly” to campaign for marijuana legalization. He said the proposal, although proving important for the nation’s discourse on marijuana usage, had holes in it, citing the excessive regulatory autonomy given to counties.

“I admired the courage of those that put [Prop. 19] on the ballot to begin that conversation,” Newsom said. “Had Prop. 19 not have been on the ballot, you would not have had the Colorado initiative and a Washington state initiative to move forward on this debate in an implementable way and a substantive way.”

Even in Colorado and Washington, however, reports of expanded out-of-state black markets with once-legal trafficked marijuana supplies are cropping up. According to reporting by the International Business Times, marijuana from Colorado has reached 40 other states.

“Polls agree something needs to change,” Newsom said. “It is time we become more mature on this topic.”

Newsom said he is not looking to allow marijuana on the sidewalks and parks of California, but that the goal is to keep it off the black markets and out of the hands of children.

As for his own kids, if he ever finds out they are smoking marijuana, they are grounded, Newsom said.

KQED NEWSROOM is a weekly news magazine program on television, radio and online. Watch Fridays at 8 p.m. on KQED Public Television 9, listen on Sundays at 6 p.m. on KQED Public Radio 88.5 FM and watch on demand here.