What to Watch for in California’s Primary on Tuesday

FILE - In this May 11, 2018 file photo Antonio Villaraigosa, the former mayor of Los Angeles, chats with constituents during a campaign stop in San Francisco. The heat for California governor is especially intense for Republican Cox and Democrat Antonio Villaraigosa, whom polls show to be in a tough fight for the second of two slots on the general election ballot. Democrat Gavin Newsom is the undisputed front-runner and is expected to advance. The primary is Tuesday, June 5, 2018, and more than 1.4 million ballots have already been cast by mail. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez,File)
Los Angeles' former mayor Antonio Villaraigosa (pictured) claims more familiarity with cannabis than some of his rivals. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP)

Registered voters who care about cannabis equality have a lot to vote for and root for in California’s Tuesday primary election. Votes up and down the ticket will affect the trajectory of cannabis law reform, from the local level all the way up to the White House.

Votes up and down the ticket will affect the trajectory of legalization and law reform in the world's largest cannabis market.

When it comes to picking pro-cannabis legislators, there’s more choices than ever before, watchers say — from who we send to the Senate and House of Representatives, all the way down to who will decide if your town gets a dispensary or not.

“I’m a fan of voting whenever you get the opportunity and certainly in a big election like this,” said Lindsay Robinson, executive director of the California Cannabis Industry Association. “We’ve sort of seen cannabis become front and center in politics.”

California’s June 5 primary vote determines which two top candidates face each other in the General Election in the Fall. All 80 seats in the state Assembly, plus 20 of the 40 seats in the state Senate, all 53 US House seats, and one US Senate seat is up for grabs. Here are the races to watch on Tuesday:

U.S. Senator

U.S. Senator Diane Feinstein is up for re-election, having this spring freshly embraced states’ rights to set their own cannabis policy. Sen. Feinstein, a longtime supporter of cannabis prohibition, is evolving on the issue because of challenges from younger Democrats who are more strongly pro-legalization. Sen. Feinstein is so out of step with the party’s progressive base that the California Democratic Party declined to endorse her this year. Still, she’s out-raised her closest challenger, State Senate President Kevin de Leon (D), by about ten to one.

“I think that she was forced to finally come around on the issue,” said California cannabis policy expert Jacquelin McGowan. McGowan is director of licensing and business development at K Street Consulting in Sacramento. “I don’t think that means she’s ever really going to be an ally. It’s unfortunate it has taken her this long to comes to terms with even medical as an acceptable use. And I think it’s hurt her.”

“It’s been difficult to watch and I’m glad there’s movement on it,” said Robinson. “We’ve been working on her for 20 years.”

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California Governor

California might be the fifth largest economy on the planet—and there’s no doubt it’s the world’s biggest cannabis economy. Twenty-seven people are running to replace termed-out Gov. Jerry Brown (D), and way out front is Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom (D), who has been years ahead of the curve on issues like marriage equality and cannabis legalization. Still, challengers like John Chiang (D) are now running to the left of Newsom on cannabis issues.

The race for second place could come down to Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa (D) and Republican John Cox. In this race, cannabis voters have the chance to not only reward a pro-cannabis politician like Newsom, but also help the cause by voting Villaraigosa and shutting Cox entirely out of November’s general election. Cox is an old-school prohibitionist. He’s stated that cannabis prohibition worked, and that he supports mandatory hospitalization for drug abusers.

Here’s a glimpse of the larger strategies in play. Democrats hope Newsom and another Democrat take first and second in the Governor’s race, because of how California’s primary works, where the top two vote-getters face off in November. Locking Republicans out of the Governor’s race could depress GOP turnout, thus helping to flip more House districts Democrat, which could lead to Democrats retaking the House and voting to impeach President Trump. California has 14 seats in the House, seven of which might be flippable.

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Rep. Dana Rohrabacher

It’s in the Congressional district races that the drama really gets intense. Headlining Tuesday’s race is the cannabis movement’s most problematic politician, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R—Huntington Beach). The surfing Congressman championed the federal shielding of medical marijuana patients with the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment (now known as the Joyce Amendment), years ahead of his colleagues. He also helped found the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, which is now bipartisan, with more pro-cannabis bills on Capitol Hill than ever before.

“He’s been a champion for the industry,” Robinson said.

Rohrabacher's other positions have put many cannabis advocates in a bind.

But Rep. Rohrabacher has also been pro-Russia, pro-Trump and anti-immigration. And President Trump lost California 68 to 32 in the presidential election, the worst defeat for the GOP since 1856. California is the center of the resistance to the President’s agenda. Rep. Rohrabacher recently accused undocumented persons of rape in his district and sided against fair housing for LGBT folks.

“It’s just an incredible insult,” said cannabis policy specialist McGowan.

Cannabis activists are in a bind. “We wouldn’t have come this far without [the LGBT community],” she said. “But we wouldn’t be here without [Rohrabacher].”

Rohrabacher is facing his first-ever serious challenge in his long career from former staffer Scott Baugh, a Republican. Meanwhile, five Democrats running to unseat Rohrabacher may cancel each other out. Republicans could lock Democrats out of the November race for California’s 48th District—and that would be a severe blow to the party’s bigger national plan.

That plan involves flipping perhaps seven districts that Hillary Clinton won from red to blue, thus helping to give Democrats a majority in the House, which might lead to impeachment proceedings. Turning longtime Republican parts of inland and Southern California blue will be tough, though. McGowan thinks impeachment might be a pipe dream. “California is in a bubble,” she said.

Furthermore, the Trump Administration has been easier on cannabis than the Obama Administration at the height of its medical cannabis crackdown. Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO) said this spring the White House will seek a states’ rights solution to federal marijuana prohibition.

“The Trump Administration has done more than Democrats [on cannabis] and I’m pretty upset Democrats left this card on the table for Republicans to pick up and play,” McGowan said. “I am a one-issue voter and this is what brought me to the polls, and I am in inner turmoil and conflict with myself daily.”

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Down the Ticket

There’s far more for voters to dig into, including state races for attorney general, where Xavier Becerra has heavily courted the cannabis industry. Ditto for secretary of state candidate Alex Padilla, and treasurer candidate Fiona Ma — all of whom have fought for, defended, or enabled cannabis legalization in the Golden State.

The California Cannabis Industry Association has identified 17 local city or county votes that will shape access and the cannabis industry more than state or national politics ever will.

For many folks, cannabis politics this year will be a gateway issue into a larger more civically minded world.

Stay tuned to Leafly for Tuesday evening returns from the California primary.