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Who Gave Us This ‘Legalization’?

Dale Gieringer and Ellen Komp of California NORML and Dale Sky Jones of Oaksterdam University are pro-Cannabis activists based in the Bay Area. In 2015 they sought input from allies and “stakeholders,” hired a lawyer, and drafted a ballot measure by which California voters could, in 2016, legalize the sale of marijuana to grown-ups for “recreational” use. They called their effort “Reform CA.” Gieringer recalls, “We were prepared to file as of July but kept getting delayed, waiting for the legislature to pass Mersa (the Marijuana Regulation and Safety Act), because we had to know what the underlying law was before we proposed how to modify it. That was nerve wracking.” 

On the day the Reform CA initiative was filed —October 2, 2015— the LA Weekly reported, “The Drug Policy Alliance, one of the biggest players in marijuana politics, might go its own way. It’s preparing its own language for circulation that could be filed later this month if DPA principals aren’t happy with other initiatives being prepared, L.A. Weekly has learned. ‘We want to have a plan B option that’s ready to go in case [another] initiative doesn’t represent and uphold the values and principles,’ says Lynne Lyman, the DPA’s California director. ‘We’re most concerned about a case where it doesn’t move forward.’“

What values and principles does DPA cherish, I wondered, that might not be upheld by Reform CA? The boss’s right to make workers pee into a cup? Why might the Reform CA measure not “move forward”? Only if they couldn’t pay for a signature drive. 

Sure enough, the Drug Policy Alliance moved in on the action and Reform CA lost the support of “stakeholders” they thought were in their camp. Given the magnitude of the disaster that ensued, I questioned Gieringer about Reform CA’s decision to fold instead of resisting the DPA power grab back in the winter of 2015/16.

DG: For a while it seemed like a hot race. We filed first. Then they filed. Then we filed amendments. Then they filed amendments. They were very worried that we were going to be doing a petition drive.

AVA: Why didn’t you?

DG: We just didn’t have the money to do it. We tried, but it was a long futile effort. 

AVA: Who were your likely backers?

DG: Steve DeAngelo had led us to believe he would support us. And Weedmaps —Justin Hartfield. We were in negotiations with both of them. Weedmaps was dangling like a million bucks, but they wanted everything put under the Alcohol Control Commission and they were very high-handed. Then word got around that Sean Parker was going to put in like $10 million on the DPA initiative —which everyone started calling the Sean Parker initiative— and nobody with serious money was going to support us, knowing we were going to be swamped by Sean Parker...If we had had a million dollars in the bank we probably would have gone ahead with the ballot campaign, which would have freaked out Sean Parker and company and they might not have proceeded.

AVA: When you say “a million dollars,” was that actually the magic number for you to go ahead?

DG: We knew it would take more than that, but if you can raise your first million, you’re on your way.

AVA: Did Gavin Newsom’s famous Blue Ribbon Commission do anything besides generate publicity for Gavin Newsom?

DG: Hmmm.... Hard to say. Many of the witnesses they heard were consultants for the Parker team. Timmon Cermak, for example [an addiction specialist despised by Dr. Tod Mikuriya]. He had some influence on the Parker initiative and was on the Blue Ribbon Commission... Dale Sky and I approached Gavin a few times during the Commission hearings. He was non-committal and slippery. Condescending. He knew that the Sean Parker thing was going to happen and wasn’t letting on while Dale Sky was trying to persuade him to support our thing.

AVA: Did you ask Sean Parker for support? [Parker made billions with Napster, a filing-sharing service that did for musicians what his Adult Use of Marijuana Act would do for small growers.]

DG: Dale Sky tried to talk to Sean Parker on two occasions but they would not return her calls. At some point late in the day, their team did contact her. There was talk about consulting on language. At one point we got a leaked draft of theirs that was just awful. Most of the verbiage was trying to rewrite Prop 215 and make sure that medical marijuana was really strictly regulated and restricted. I think at that point we shared with them a rough draft of our version. Never heard from them again until after we had submitted our language to the secretary of state and then I got a call from Graham Boyd (a leading ACLU lawyer and longtime ally of the Drug Policy Alliance) expressing concern that we were going to go ahead. They were seriously worried about having two conflicting initiatives on the ballot. He called again a while later to ask if we had any comments or recommendations on their draft. And we did. We had a bunch of criticisms, most of which they rejected flat out, but they accommodated us on a few not-so-important points. Once they knew we didn’t have Weedmaps or Harborside, we didn’t pose a serious threat.

AVA: Then they lined up support from FlowKanna and Cannacraft and a few other companies that still had some “movement” cred. And of course they paid activists to be on their payroll and support them online...What was the main difference between your draft and the DPA draft?

DG: Employees’ rights —that’s a fight we’re still fighting. And we would never have banned consumption in all public spaces. We made sure not to include vaporizing in any definition of smoking. We would have outlawed local taxes. State taxes would have been shared with local governments. 

AVA: Sounds like we would still have been in the mess we’re in now if your initiative had gone through.

DG: (Long pause, nervous laughter). I think maybe so. We left Mersa in tact because we didn’t want to deprecate the legislature’s hard work. 

O’S: Are there precedents for taxing medicine in California? 

DG: Over-the-counter drugs and herbal medicines are taxed. Interestingly, If you buy ginger at the herb store it’s taxed as an herbal medicine; if you buy it at the grocery, it’s not taxed because it’s food.

O’S: Was the term “legalization” ever considered for the title?

DG: Never. All the political gurus think it’s too loaded. I was disappointed in our own legal team. Joe Rogoway, sort of freaked out and said “they’re going to win anyway, so let’s give up.” We had a firm in San Francisco, Mannat, who Jim Gonzales lined us up with. I didn’t like their draft that much. A lot of things were left vague, and a lot of things were going to be left up to a commission —that was Jim Gonzales’s idea.

AVA: How did things get so bad so fast? I gather DeAngelo had hired Willie Brown to be his lobbyist. Willie still had tremendous influence in Sacramento, and he supposedly did something at the last minute that made possible these mega-grows

DG: He allegedly slipped some language into the governor’s “trailer bill.” Every year there’s a trailer bill sponsored by the governor’s office to make adjustments to various laws. In recent years one of these has always involved marijuana. So insiders who are close to the governor’s office —which we were not— have the ability to influence what goes into the trailer bill. I think it was the last trailer bill in the Brown Administration.

AVA: Dress (the Harborside co-owner who DeAngelo never treated as an equal) estimates that over time he brought Brown $750 grand in cash. He’s writing a memoir and decided to get documentation of his stint as a bag man. 

Note: Dress Wedding, né David Norberg, is a big, hirsute heterosexual man who began wearing women’s schmatas in the ‘80s when he was, he says “an anti-nuclear activist disgusted with America.” It’s an odd act of protest, but he has been consistent all these years in his presentation of self.


  1. Fred Gardner February 14, 2022

    This was written before I got input from the prime mover, Dale Sky Jones, and two other knowledgable sources.. More TK on this story.

  2. John McCowen February 14, 2022

    Because of my role in creating the 9.31 permit program I was initially included in the Reform California conference calls and emails. Dale Sky Jones was the lead organizer and driving force. She excelled at keeping the meetings on track and productive but without offending people. I think she also understood the difficulty but the necessity in transforming a movement into an industry while also protecting patient rights and access. When Sean Parker and DPA cut the ground from under the grass roots organizers and organizations backing Reform CA, I recall Dale Sky Jones likening it to a hostile takeover. Her comment has proven unfortunately prescient given how Prop. 64 paved the way for consolidation and corporatization. It’s hard to say how things would be different if Reform CA had gone forward instead of AUMA/Prop 64 but they could hardly have been worse.

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