It was a bright, sunny summer day in Oakland, and the air outside the downtown Marriott City Center hotel was fragrant with — ahem — opportunity.
Inside the hotel's massive banquet hall, thousands of besuited pot-industry people packed the seats, aisles, and walls to hear Gavin Newsom deliver a keynote address. The lieutenant governor is also the highest-ranking California official to ever embrace the cannabis-users-rights movement. But he didn't come to honor the National Cannabis Industry Association.
He came to give it a cold shower.
Newsom warned that although Proposition 64, this fall's ballot initiative that would legalize adult use of marijuana, has numerous supporters, it also boasts many influential detractors — even among medical-marijuana activists.
"It's not a done deal by any stretch of the imagination," he told the room. "If any of you think this thing is done in California, you couldn't be more wrong."
You could hear a bud drop.
For instance, the former San Francisco mayor, who is a father of four, told the audience that even his wife is against legalization.
And he reminded cannabis folks that California both trails the rest of the nation on making pot legal and also isn't as progressive as people think. "Remember, it was just a few years ago voters rejected legalization. Remember, they passed [gay-marriage ban] Prop. 8 in California not that long ago" as well, he said.
Most recent polling shows unprecedented support for legalization and Prop. 64. A Field Poll/Institute for Governmental Studies survey from late September notched backing for the measure at 60 percent, with just 31 percent opposed and the rest undecided.
Does this mean pot is poised to finally break free after years of prohibition and criminalization? Or will there be some kind of weed wild card during this final month before Election Day?
Let's not under-estimate the opposition: prohibitionists, powerful GOP benefactors, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, editorial boards at the likes of the McClatchy Co., stoners against legalization — plus the usual social mix of conservatives, soccer moms, and law-enforcement types, who will line up against pot on November 8. California is a state of 38 million people — more than seven-times as big as Colorado — and it's radically more diverse.
Perhaps Newsom, in front of the legalization proponents at the Oakland event, put it best:
"Do not take California for granted."
Fear of Failure
Several industry experts this writer spoke with for this story echoed Newsom's remarks: What is public enemy No. 1 for cannabis reform?
Consider data presented by Roger Morgan, the director of the Coalition for a Drug Free California and No on 64 leader. Even though some 60 percent of Californians purportedly support Prop. 64, he noted at an event in San Francisco this past summer that 83 percent of California cities and counties have banned medical pot cultivation.
In other words, most local governments are not stoked about legal weed.
"My belief is it's not going to pass," he said at the Q-and-A session on July 24 at the San Francisco Commonwealth Club. "We fought this battle four years ago with Prop. 19."
Morgan also said he was trying to access $50 million in federal anti-drug funding to spread the message to parents and teachers that "the human brain is permanently damaged" by marijuana.
"We don't grow any other crops that basically poison people," he said. "I think it's insanity."
His No on 64 contingent also will get billions of additional dollars in free institutional support from some unions, law-enforcement groups, and local and state lawmakers. This robust opposition, combined with other electoral factors, suggests that the ballot measure could very well fail despite favorable pre-election polling.
And there are other fears that keep some of America's leading cannabis-law reformers up at night.
Marijuana Policy Project director Rob Kampia, for instance, is worried about Nevada, Arizona — and Donald Trump.
Back at the Marriott hotel this summer, Kampia rattled off how all nine legalization campaigns nationwide are underfunded.
The eight committees that back Prop. 64, for example, have reported more than $27 million in campaign contributions so far this year (through the last week of September), according to the secretary of state's website. Some of this money may be shuffling between committees, however. And while this sounds like a lot — but, as a comparison, the cigarette lobby has raked in more than $56 million this year to fight Proposition 56.
By and large, advocacy groups and wealthy philanthropists have chipped in to fund Prop. 64, but the cannabis industry and its consumers have barely contributed.
"California polling is good, but we can't take anything for granted," Kampia told the audience of industry members.
He also pointed out that, in California, there's a track record of real money being raised for the opposition. "The last several election cycles — for marijuana legalization or criminal-justice reform — did see various wealthy interests opposing reform," he explained.
But so far this year, the two committees opposed to 64 have raised just under $2 million.
Still, an anti-pot contingent looms, including former gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman, Feinstein, some American Indian tribes, and "always the police establishment and prison guards' union," Kampia said. "The owner of the San Diego Chargers opposed us in 1996," as well.
And the editorial boards at McClatchy Co. newspapers, which owns The Sacramento Bee and The Fresno Bee, recently endorsed "no" on Prop. 64.
In Nevada, legalization is threatened by casino magnate and Republican super-donor Sheldon Adelson, who used his fortune to deny Floridians medical-marijuana in 2014. He also bought a Las Vegas newspaper that subsequently switched from supporting legalization to opposing it.