Anti-Pot Rhetoric Out of Step With California Voters


SACRAMENTO — As the state Republican Party searched for new ways to reach California's young and independent-oriented electorate during its weekend convention outside of San Francisco, its main lieutenant governor candidate has chosen to run on an increasingly unpopular issue: opposing the decriminalization of marijuana.

At a press conference on Saturday, former party chairman Ron Nehring of San Diego argued that the advancing movement to decriminalize pot is endangering children: "Anyone who thinks that this is only going to be limited to adults needs to put the crack pipe down because that is simply not reality."

Nehring seeks support from voters who don't like Democratic Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom's support for marijuana decriminalization. Oddly for a GOP convention, Nehring praised Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown, who recently suggested that a stoned populace is bad for the state's economy as he criticized legalization efforts similar to those in Washington and Colorado.

Nehring said he favors the approach taken by a group called Project SAM. Its "Smart Approaches to Marijuana" are short on specifics, but are mainly about keeping marijuana illegal. In a Huffington Post article last April, Nehring even criticized the use of medical marijuana, which has been legal in California since Prop. 215's passage in 1996.

He's got an uphill battle, not just with his candidacy but in gaining traction for this issue. A December Field poll found that most California voters, by a 56 percent to 39 percent margin, favor a proposed marijuana-legalization initiative, with opposition coming mainly from Republicans and self-identified conservatives. Voter preferences can change as campaigns heat up, of course, but attitudes are shifting in the legalization direction over time.

Supporters of legalization say it's better to regulate it than to fight a drug war. Despite what the governor said at a district attorneys' event in 2010, marijuana legalization will not help the Mexican cartels. The last thing drug lords want is legal competition.

In his Huffington Post piece, Newsom argued that "Californians must renew our push for common-sense marijuana policy by developing a state level regulatory system and lead the national effort to end draconian laws that favor incarceration over education." But the latest effort to develop such a system is sponsored by the police chiefs' association and the California League of Cities – two groups that are trying to clamp down on dispensaries. Authored by Sen. Lou Correa (D-Santa Ana), SB 1262 would give state authorities the power to license those facilities that sell medical pot, but it would also make it harder for patients to get doctor recommendations to buy it.

This seems counterproductive given fiscal realities. The state's prison system is so overcrowded that officials are releasing inmates who have committed serious crimes. Cities are cutting their public-safety budgets as pension costs consume more dollars. One would think that police chiefs and city-government advocates would have other priorities.

Pot foes complain that it's too easy for anyone to get a marijuana "card" for medical uses and that such drugs are harmful to kids for recreational uses. Legalization supporters say the question is not whether marijuana is good or bad, but whether maintaining a prohibition is a wise use of resources. Legalizing a substance does not necessarily mean that it will be more widely used, as Portugal's drug-decriminalization efforts suggest.

Both sides of the debate insist that they want to downplay incarceration and focus on drug treatment, which might be a good place for a little common ground. But sensible solutions will no doubt get lost in a statewide political campaign where voters can expect sound-bites and hit mailers about crack pipes and potheads.

In 1983, conservative icon William F. Buckley argued that "The anti-marijuana campaign is a cancerous tissue of lies, undermining law enforcement, aggravating the drug problem, depriving the sick of needed help, and suckering well-intentioned conservatives and countless frightened parents." On the political level, not much has changed after three decades. But voters seem to be moving beyond the scare tactics.