Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom said he is prepared to campaign in 2016 for a state ballot initiative to legalize marijuana, if the referendum is written the way it should be.
"Oh, absolutely, if it is the right initiative," Newsom said while speaking to an audience in Marin Tuesday.
More than 90 people turned out to hear Newsom, a graduate of Redwood High School and current Marin resident, speak during a luncheon meeting of the Marin County Bar Association at Jason's Restaurant in Greenbrae.
Newsom said that he avoided taking a stand on Proposition 19, which would have legalized cannabis, in 2010 when he was mayor of San Francisco. Newsom said he did so partially because the initiative left too many questions unanswered. In 2012, however, Newsom's support for legalization became well known after he spoke candidly in a front-page New York Times article on the subject.
"It's time for politicians to come out of the closet on this," the Times quoted Newsom as saying at the time.
"Boy, did I get some blowback," Newsom said Tuesday, recounting the reaction.
This isn't the first time that Newsom has taken a stand on an issue considered too controversial for the average politician. In 2004, then-mayor Newsom authorized the issuance of marriage licenses to same-sex couples in violation of state law, despite the Republican Party's eagerness to use gay marriage as a wedge issue.
Dotty LeMieux, a veteran Marin political campaign manager and consultant who attended Tuesday's luncheon, said, "Gavin is known for taking strong, controversial stands. I think he senses a change in the wind, that California is ready, or getting ready, to make a change."
Last year, Newsom agreed to head a task force convened by the American Civil Liberties Union of California to study the complex legal and policy issues connected with legalization.
"I want to make sure that if we do something here, that we do it right," Newsom said. "Let's not screw this thing up."
He said the question at the top of his list is how to protect kids in a legalized environment. Newsom said the legal age for using marijuana should be 21.
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"I don't want to see this drug advertised to our kids -- how dare you?" Newsom said. "I don't want to see it promoted as some good thing; I don't believe it is. Kids should not be using this drug -- period, exclamation point."
Newsom said it is also important to hold accountable people who drive while under the influence of marijuana; not to impose taxes on marijuana so high that they preserve black market sales; to make sure tax revenue comes back to cities and counties who enforce the new marijuana regulations; that production of the marijuana be regulated to assure its safety and that the banking system embrace legalization so that financial transactions can be conducted legitimately.
"There are so many unanswered questions," Newsom said.
Unlike some advocates for legalization, Newsom did not talk about the potential tax revenue that could be created by a change in the law.
"For me, it's not about the tax revenue," Newsom said. "I think the war on drugs has been a war on the poor and people of color. I don't like drugs. I don't like drug abuse. But I hate the drug war more."
Following his nearly hour-long talk, Newsom answered questions from what appeared to be a largely receptive audience.
San Anselmo Councilman Ford Greene asked, "Why should we stop with only the legalization of marijuana? Why shouldn't it be like in England and heroin addiction be something that could be more regulated?"
Newsom said, "I happen to believe that marijuana is a hell of a lot more benign that heroin, and methamphetamine and cocaine. That's my own personal opinion. I would have a harder time arguing for a legalization pathway for those drugs."
College of Marin Trustee Wanden Treanor asked Newsom if the ACLU task force is looking at the possible health costs connected with legalization and the need to cover those costs with taxes.
"There will be a societal cost if we see a huge increase in use," Newsom said. "That is a question that will be answered by objective studies that are being done in Colorado and Washington. No one knows yet."