Medical cannabis unity disappears over adult-use

Commentary by R.E. Graswich

They formed an impressive coalition: police chiefs, cannabis growers, rank and file cops, local government officials, Democrat and Republican lawmakers, marijuana dispensaries and patients.

They had their disagreements, especially as legislative deadlines approached. Eventually, Gov. Brown's office stepped in to wrangle the language and soothe egos among several state legislators.

The result was something unprecedented for California -- unity among disparate interest groups that created the state's first comprehensive cannabis regulatory package to pass both legislative chambers and secure the governor's signature.

A year later, the adult-use marijuana initiative, Prop. 64 on the November ballot, is following a much different trajectory. The coalition that created the California Medical Marijuana Regulation and Safety Act has fractured, with some actively opposing the ballot measure.

What went wrong?

An analysis by suggests Prop. 64 supporters violated a basic commandment of political groundwork. While they were lining up money from high profile venture capitalists such as Sean Parker, and relying on top-line surrogates such as Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, the adult-use team failed to expand the tent with other important stakeholders, notably cultivators, cops and local governments.

The result is a contested election. The Prop. 64 opposition includes some of the same people who supported medical marijuana regulation -- people who would ideally have been on board with a law that permitted recreational cannabis sales to adults over 21.

One problem is the initiative process itself. Anyone can try to qualify a ballot measure in California, and many competing interests did circulate petitions to place multiple adult-use measures on the November ballot.

Prop. 64, backed by Parker's money, was the only cannabis initiative to gain enough qualifying signatures. While other proposed ballot measures all worked toward the same goal -- making California open to recreational cannabis -- the would-be initiatives were significantly different in their details.

And just because Prop. 64 reached the ballot, it didn't assure unity among cannabis stakeholders.

The cannabis industry has operated on the margins and worked in shadows for generations in California. Even among specific cannabis industry segments, such as cultivators, there are strong differences of opinions about pathways to regulation.

Other issues are difficult to assess under the best conditions. Questions about advertising and exposing marijuana to children has troubled the state's law enforcement leadership associations and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who opposes Prop. 64.

Law enforcement authorities are also concerned about objective DUI standards for cannabis. Local governments are worried about enshrining in the State Constitution a new adult-use law that could undermine their ability to prohibit cannabis within their city limits.

Even supporters of Prop. 64 are lukewarm in their endorsement. The Bay Area News Group endorsed passage in its newspapers, but scattered such phrases as "isn't perfect," "needs refinement" and "the initiative is generally solid" throughout its editorial. The BANG authors were more invested in the larger question of California moving ahead on cannabis reform than the details of Prop. 64.

None of this is to suggest Prop. 64 is doomed to lose in November. The initiative has deep corporate support and favorable poll numbers. Voters may be willing to put the question of legalized cannabis behind them in California.

But it's fair to say Prop. 64 would never have survived the legislative process in Sacramento with similar disagreements among so many key stakeholders.

That's the big difference between last year's successful regulatory package for medical cannabis and this year's adult-use ballot measure.