Here’s Where California’s Next Governor Stands on Cannabis

Published on May 29, 2018 · Last updated July 28, 2020

At a debate among California’s top six gubernatorial candidates earlier this year, the backdrop read El Momento de la Verdad – The Moment of Truth.

“Just for the record,” asked moderator Jorge Ramos, anchor for the Spanish-language news network, Univision, “will you raise your hand if you’ve ever used pot?”

Have you ever used pot? asked the moderator. Antonio Villaraigosa's hand shot up. 'And unlike some,' he said, 'I inhaled.'

Up went the hands. Former Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa made sure he was out of the gate fastest and boldest. He shot his hand high in the air and kept it there. John Chiang, the state treasurer, inched his hand up to his chin. Then Delaine Eastin, the former state superintendent of public instruction, belatedly raised her arm.

The two leading Republicans, San Diego businessman John Cox and Huntington Beach Assemblyman Travis Allen, didn’t raise their hands. Neither did leading Democratic contender Gavin Newsom, the lieutenant governor and former San Francisco mayor who successfully championed California’s Proposition 64 adult use legalization measure in 2016.

Villaraigosa, who had endorsed Proposition 64 late in the campaign, excitedly claimed victory on the question.

“And unlike some,” Villaraigosa said, enticing cheers and laughter from the crowd, “I inhaled.”

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Gavin vs. Everybody Else

Villaraigosa won the moment, but it’s Newsom who appears to be breathing in the most support from cannabis voters in race to replace retiring Jerry Brown as California governor.

His campaign says he has never consumed cannabis, and Newsom once told The Sacramento Bee, “I hate the stuff. Can’t stand it.” But he got out ahead on the issue with Proposition 64 and his anti-Drug War oratory that “the legalization of marijuana is a social justice issue.”

Newsom currently leads in the polls during the run-up to California’s June 5 primary, in which the top two candidates advance to the November general election regardless of party. (NYT reporter Adam Nagourney ran a handy explainer on that recently.) He has raised the  raised the most money – $26 million to $10 million for Villaraigosa. In 2017, he took in more than $300,000 in cannabis industry contributions to just $5,000 for Villaraigosa and little or none for other opponents, according to a Los Angeles Times analysis.

The Drug Policy Forum of California, in its election critique on cannabis issues, positively rates the four Democratic contenders, Newsom, Villaraigosa, Chaing and Eastin, as “pro-reform” on cannabis policy. Unlike California’s famously right-wing and pro-cannabis GOP Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, the Drug Policy Forum lists Republican candidates Cox and Allen as “anti-reform” for cannabis views the group called “nutty” or “dismal.”

“The race for governor features four strong Democrats and two Republican reactionaries,” the Drug Policy Forum said.

Here are the top contenders for California governor and their views on cannabis and other issues. They are listed, bottom to top, based on their chances of reaching the November election runoff according to a recent statewide poll by the University of California Institute of Governmental Studies.

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6. Delaine Eastin, Democrat

Bio: The only woman among the top six contenders, Eastin, 70, served as California superintendent of public instruction from 1995 to 2003 and in the state Assembly from 1986 to 1994. She is currently chairwoman of Educate our State, which advocates for California schools.

Website: Delaine For Governor

Campaign: Eastin is calling for passage of single-payer health care in California, along with major state investments to offer universal preschool and tuition-free state university education for California residents.

Cannabis policy:  Eastin supports cannabis decriminalization. She also backs creation of a public bank in California to handle cannabis industry deposits and transactions while providing loans for small businesses, cannabis and otherwise. She believes Proposition 64 should have included revenue investments in mental health programs.

Canna quote: “We must end the War on Drugs in California and begin to treat all addiction, not just alcohol and opioids, as a mental health issue.” That’s from Eastin’s campaign website.

5. John Chiang, Democrat

Bio: A son of Chinese immigrants, Chiang, 55, was elected as state treasurer in 2014, after serving two four-year terms as controller, California’s chief financial officer, and earlier as a member of the Board of Equalization taxation agency.

Website: John Chiang for Governor

Campaign: Chiang is running as “the state’s banker,” citing his fiscal management and his work guiding California back from recession to its robust place as the world’s 5th largest economy. He supports universal health care in California, cutting college tuition rates, policies to fight climate change, vows to confront an anti-immigration “Trump deportation machine.”

Cannabis policy: Chiang took a major leadership role in advocating for banking solutions for California cannabis businesses last year when he headed California’s Cannabis Working Group. The policy panel recommended studies to create a state-regulated credit union or public-private consortium to coordinate financial services for licensed cannabis businesses.

Canna quote: “We are contending with…a multibillion-dollar cannabis industry that needs banking services…Until the slow, clunking machinery of the federal government catches up with the values and will of the people…states like California will continue to both resist and, more importantly, to lead.” That’s from a Chiang press release.

4. Antonio Villaraigosa, Democrat

Bio: Villaraigosa, 65, the first Latino mayor in Los Angeles since 1872, served two terms as mayor from 2005 to 2005. He was formerly a state Assembly member and, from 1998 to 2000, Assembly Speaker. The Los Angeles Times recently endorsed him for governor, praising him for reducing crime, investing in transportation and improving schools.

Website: Antonio For California

Campaign: Villaraigosa is running on a platform of addressing economic inequality in California. He pledges to lift the lives of residents left behind by the new economy by improving under-performing schools, building affordable housing, protecting “Dreamers” from deportation, and expanding the Affordable Care Act as a pathway to universal health care.

Cannabis policy: Villaraigosa cautiously endorsed Proposition 64 a week before the November 2016 election, declaring: “I took my time on this measure because I wanted to make sure it included protections for children and public safety.” At a May 8 gubernatorial debate, he said California needed to protect small cannabis businesses in the face of large conglomerates emerging in the cannabis economy.

Canna quote: “We need to be true to what we said we were going to do (in Proposition 64). We are going to focus on local businesses and not on what you see currently happening: A lot of private equity and big money interests…coming in and kind of boxing out local folks.” That’s from a May 8 debate in San Diego.

3. Travis Allen, Republican

Bio: Allen, 44, a financial planner and surfer from Dana Rohrabacher’s Huntington Beach-area congressional district, is a three-term state Assembly member. He is an outspoken conservative, with occasional bombast including a Pants on Fire claim that California legislation to protect vulnerable children from sex trafficking was legalizing child prostitution.

Website: Join Travis Allen

Campaign: With a MAGA-style campaign slogan – “Take Back California” –and web photos of menacing MS-13 gang members, Allen is running a nativist campaign against illegal immigration and sanctuary cities. He is championing the repeal of a gas tax for highway construction that was signed by Gov. Jerry Brown, while asserting that he is the California political heir to Donald Trump.

Cannabis policy: Allen was one of two Assembly members to vote against legislation – Senate Bill 94 – to license and regulate medical and adult use cannabis businesses in California. He isn’t a fan of cannabis legalization, particularly the adult-use kind.

Canna quote: “The voters of California voted for medical marijuana, and I think a lot of Californians can understand that. It helps you with your nausea from cancer or for your glaucoma. Whatever it happens to be, a lot of voters are okay with that. But this legalized recreational marijuana will have disastrous consequences in California, as we have already seen in Colorado.” That’s a quote from the May 8 San Diego debate.

2. John Cox, Republican

Bio: A transplant from Chicago who now lives in the Rancho Santa Fe community near San Diego, Cox, 62, ran for the United States Senate in Illinois and, in 2003, debated the eventual winner: Barack Obama. A millionaire businessman, he founded an Illinois law firm specializing in tax and corporate law and estate planning and was chief financial officer of the snack foods company Jay Foods.

Website: John Cox for Governor

Campaign: Cox, who touts himself more as a Reagan Republican than a Trump disciple, nonetheless got Trump’s endorsement. He casts himself as an anti-abortion and pro-gun candidate who also “strongly opposes Jerry Brown’s ‘Sanctuary State’ and boondoggles like the High Speed Rail ‘Train to Nowhere,'” a major California transportation initiative.

Cannabis policy: Cox says he is against cannabis legalization for adult use and he drew headlines in a recent gubernatorial debate when he appeared to suggest that users should be hospitalized for treatment for substance abuse. In a follow-up interview with the San Diego Union-Tribune, he said he didn’t mean to imply that consumers should be institutionalized, just that people “addicted to substances…should get treated.”

Canna quote: “I’d like to go to the Portugal system, where they actually put people who use marijuana in hospitals and cure them of their substance abuse. I’m not interested in jailing recreational marijuana users, and I’m certainly for medical marijuana.” That’s from the May 8 debate.

1. Gavin Newsom, Democrat

Bio: Newsom, 50, the son of a state appellate court judge, William Newsom III, founded a boutique winery– PlumpJackWinery –before running for San Francisco County supervisor. He won election to the first of two terms as mayor in 2003 and was elected lieutenant governor in 2010.

Website: Gavin for Governor

Campaign: Newsom is asserting his “bold willingness to lead,” including getting out ahead on controversial social issues: opening the doors to San Francisco City Hall for same-sex marriage ceremonies in 2004, and championing successful ammo-control and cannabis legalization initiatives in 2016. He advocates single-payer health care in California, increased mental health treatment, and policies to protect worker’s rights, civil rights, and the environment.

Cannabis policy: A year before Proposition 64 made the ballot, Newsom became the most visible California politician embracing marijuana legalization as the face of the pro-cannabis Blue Ribbon Commission on Marijuana Policy. He later signed on with the initiative backed by investors, including former Facebook president and Napster co-founder Sean Parker. While some cannabis advocates complained that he exploited the measure for his gubernatorial aspirations, Newsom claimed credit for leading “the coalition to decriminalize cannabis, taking a bold step towards ending the failed war on drugs.”

Canna quote: “We moved towards legalization to get people into the day light and into the sunshine of a regulated environment, which means you’ve got to act maturely, you’ve got to play by the rules. You can’t play in the margins. There is no more black market.” That’s from a Newsweek interview.

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Peter Hecht
Peter Hecht
Peter Hecht, former political writer and Los Angeles bureau chief for the Sacramento Bee, has been reporting on cannabis since 2009. His coverage has been honored for explanatory reporting in the "Best of the West" journalism awards and earned an Excellence in Journalism prize from the Northern California Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Hecht is the author of the book “Weed Land: Inside America’s Marijuana Epicenter and How Pot Went Legit.”
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