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Why Is California Running a Cannabis Campaign Without the Cannabis?

Published on November 2, 2016 · Last updated July 28, 2020

With less than a week to go before Election Day, the organizers of California’s Proposition 64 have yet to throw a rally or stage a massive public campaign event. Instead of dispatching a ground assault of volunteers knocking on doors to get out the vote, the nation’s most visible adult-use legalization campaign is buying airtime on TV and the web. Backers are hosting conference calls with reporters. It’s a precise, tightly controlled PR strategy. And the apparent message is an unusual one: You should feel good about legalizing marijuana, but for the love of god don’t smoke it.

This is a cannabis legalization campaign. Where’s the cannabis?

The message of one recent Yes on Prop. 64 spot, “Common Sense,” exemplifies the incongruity. It’s one of money, regulation, taxes, rules. Former California Finance Director Tom Campbell lays out a bone-dry case for tight, responsible regulation. Marijuana itself seems an afterthought—and the thought is not pleasant.

To spare you a second viewing, here’s Campbell’s money quote: “I’ve never tried marijuana and I don’t advocate others doing so.” In no uncertain terms, the official marijuana legalization campaign in the country’s most populous state is telling us we shouldn’t consume cannabis. Prop. 64’s messaging has been largely consistent with this DARE-worthy message for more than a year.

“We’re not trying to normalize it, we’re not trying to condone it.”

Gavin Newsom, California’s lieutenant governor, is the highest-ranking politician to endorse Prop. 64. Were the campaign to have a rally—and were celebrity stoners like Snoop Dogg to show up—Newsom would probably walk out. He hates cannabis with a zealous passion. The sight, the smell—“I can’t stand it,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle editorial board in September, describing himself not as pro-marijuana but as “anti-Prohibition.”

He’s not shy about suggesting cannabis consumers are, essentially, losers. “It’s like, ‘Grow up get a life, come on … you’ve got something better to do with your life,” he told the paper. “We’re not trying to normalize it, we’re not trying to condone it.” (It should be noted that Newsom, who is heavily involved in the wine business and, following a tawdry scandal in 2007, briefly sought treatment for alcohol abuse, does not say the same things about wine.)

Then there’s Donald Lyman, a retired physician and former member of the California Medical Board. One of the measure’s three official proponents, he’s on record saying marijuana is unhealthy. Speaking to the Los Angeles Times about the adult-use measure late last year, he even suggested the term “recreational” is a sham, as though cannabis shouldn’t be enjoyed. “People do not use it to make themselves healthier,” he told the LA Times. “They use it to deal with other problems. It is a dangerous and ill-advised substance.”

That “marijuana is harmful” line ought to be familiar, as it’s been in an arrow the anti-cannabis crowd’s quiver< for many years. In 2016, it’s coming from legalization’s friends and saviors.

There’s little precedent for this anywhere in politics. Imagine if Gov. Jerry Brown, still trying to convince tax-loathing, service-loving Californians that a bullet train between San Francisco and Los Angeles is a good idea, went on TV to say how dangerous trains were and how you should fly instead. What if Hillary Clinton allowed her endorsers to go on at length about how they wouldn’t allow her within a mile of their sensitive information? This is not far from Lyman saying, without qualification or equivocation, that cannabis is bad and you should not use it—but please do vote for people’s privilege to do so.

What does this show us? That long after cannabis stops being America’s favorite illicit substance, it’s destined to remain our favorite stigmatized one. It also makes clear the stark political calculation meant to guarantee Prop. 64 can succeed where California’s 2010 legalization initiative, Prop. 19, failed.

Winning on Nov. 8 means getting support from “Californians who aren’t necessarily marijuana consumers,” says Jason Kinney, a Prop. 64 spokesman, “and we’ve worked hard to showcase our diversity and make it clear that you don’t have to be pro-marijuana to be anti-criminalization.”

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In other words, the campaign is taking pains to convince people who have never and would never try cannabis that voting to allow other people to do so is an acceptable thing. The brute math is behind this. With somewhere between 10 and 15 percent of adults, depending on the poll, acknowledging that they’re regular cannabis consumers, those people are the minority. This kind of messaging, the reasoning goes, is what’s needed to win over undecided or lukewarm voters, the scared suburbanites who are still convinced that trying a joint is the difference between little Timmy getting into Harvard or being shipped off to San Quentin.

There are, of course, numerous examples of once-and-former marijuana users who turned out just fine. Many have achieved notable success. A few even lived in the White House. Government institutions like the FDA and the National Institutes on Drug Abuse are finally coming clean after decades of anti-cannabis propaganda and admitting junk science like the gateway drug theory are just that: junk. Yet that myth and others are still there, in the letters to the editor and on the lips of wary voters, propping up the stale notion that cannabis should be a crime. Rather than dispelling these myths, the legalization campaign is instead dodging the uncomfortable, honest, inevitable conversation.

The deputy director of NORML California, Ellen Komp, is among those trying to raise the public profile of cannabis. She’s launched a website, Very Important Potheads, featuring cannabis consumers at the top of their respective fields in science, music, business, literature, politics, and others. And her book, Tokin’ Women, has a similar goal. “We have a lot of work to do on the ground still to gain acceptance,” Komp says, noting that California’s medical marijuana law, Prop. 215, didn’t do much to remove the plant’s stigma. “I found out after 215 passed that it didn’t mean locals or [police] would immediately accept us.”

“I hope if it’s legalized, more people will feel free to ‘come out’ to their friends and families about their marijuana use.”

The Prop. 64 campaign’s denigration and marginalization of cannabis might be grounded in political expediency, but in reality, it’s utterly unnecessary. Remember: Despite having a tenth of the campaign cash well-funded Prop. 64 has to spend on boring ads, and despite every big-name politician—including Newsom himself—telling voters to oppose it, Prop. 19 almost won. In a non-presidential year with more conservative turnout among voters, it went down only by 5 percentage points. Now, six years later, four states have legalized cannabis without the sky falling or the youth turning into zombies. In fact, teen use in Colorado has fallen since legalization. A record 60 percent of Americans now support legal cannabis, and Prop. 64 has majority support, too: 55 percent of likely voters say they support the measure.

Prop. 64 is ahead. Playing to these old fears is unnecessary—and it’s also dangerous. Let’s say the measure passes, as it appears likely to do. Up to an ounce of marijuana is now legal for adults 21 and over to possess. But where does that ounce come from?

Baked into Prop. 64 is the provision, sacred in California, of local control. If a city or a county wants to ban commercial cannabis cultivation or retail sales, they’ll be able to do it. (Legally speaking, since a place to grow or buy legal cannabis needs local permits, they don’t even need to actively ban—they can just do nothing.) This has already happened with medical marijuana. Vast swaths of the state, including much of inland Southern California as well as Silicon Valley cities like Palo Alto, have said no to dispensaries. It’s also happened in adult-use states like Colorado, Oregon, and Washington.

Let’s say, as expected, that the same happens with Prop. 64. Where are the residents of those areas supposed to get their now-legal cannabis? If they don’t have the skill or patience to grow it—adults over 21 would be allowed to grow up to six plants indoors—they have two options: drive to the nearest city that allows dispensaries or patronize the black market.

In Southern California, one city, San Juan Capistrano, is going a step further to limit access, mulling a mandatory “residential indoor cultivation permit” for what’s supposed to be a guaranteed right to all adults under Prop. 64. It’s not even clear such a rule would withstand a legal challenge, but the fact local officials are looking at it is telling.

Employers, too, could be influenced by the campaign’s anti-cannabis message. Rather than see a shifting tide in cannabis acceptance, they could instead respond by beefing up workplace drug testing in an effort to keep cannabis consumers out of their ranks. “I hope if it’s legalized, more people will feel free to ‘come out’ to their friends and families about their marijuana use,” NORML’s Komp says. “But it will still be dangerous to do so in the workplace if drug testing happens there.

The example Newsom and Lyman are setting—that cannabis is fine, just for someone else, somewhere else—only encourages local city council members, employers, and the general public to take the same tack and push cannabis consumers to continue to live in the shadows, even after a landmark victory for legalization.

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Chris Roberts
Chris Roberts
Based in New York City, Chris Roberts has been writing about cannabis since spending a few months in Humboldt County in 2009. His work has been published in SF Weekly, Cannabis Now, The Guardian, High Times, and San Francisco Magazine, among others.
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