Democrats Pass on Pot

David Sutherland

The Democratic Party of California could have taken a nice long drag over the weekend, but instead it passed on a chance at hash-pipe history.

Up for debate during the party's executive board meeting this weekend in San Jose was a motion to support Proposition 19, which would allow for the legal use of marijuana for recreational purposes.

If passed, you no longer will need (or pretend) to be sick in order to get high. The board voted 101 to 85 against endorsing the measure. Instead the party is officially "neutral."

With apologies to Bill Clinton, you might say the joint was lit but the party didn't inhale. Not that they didn't want to. State Democratic party chairman John Burton, who says he hasn't been stoned in years, supports 19 and was in favor of an all out endorsement.

Burton believes the measure will stimulate turnout of younger voters, whom he believes will help party candidates up and down the ballot. He also strongly believes that legalization is simply the right thing to do. It is clear that most of the party leadership agrees. The worry, of course, is that voters don't. As a result, Democrats backed off.

You see, the D's are in a street fight this fall and are worried. Barbara Boxer, who has been in Congress for 28 years, currently trails Republican Carly Fiorina in the race for U.S. Senate. Boxer is already considered one of the most liberal members of the Senate. She opposes Prop. 19, and for good reason. If the former Marin County Supervisor backed legalizing pot (which still is prohibited by federal law, which she is sworn to uphold) it could tip the scales among moderate Democrats and Independents by demonstrating that she is simply too left for even California.

It also risks taking her "off message." Right now, with the state's unemployment rate at 12.3 percent, the make-or-break issue is the economy and jobs. Legalizing hash implies you are less worried about job creation than what people can do to ease the pain of joblessness.

And then there is Attorney General Jerry Brown.

Brown, who also opposes Prop. 19, would be severely compromised by a party that supported legalization. First, it would diminish his standing as the state's top law enforcement officer, which is his current job. It too would take him "off message" (see paragraph above), and it would add resonance to opponent Meg Whitman's effort to portray him as a 72-year-old "new age" politician from the hippie era.

Brown's past moniker of "Governor Moonbeam" would take on new life.

Of course there is also one other reason why running with a party that endorsed Prop. 19 would be problematic. Polls indicate the measure is already losing. But the candidates aren't out of the woods yet. Don't expect the GOP to take a pass on this issue because the state party is "neutral" on Prop. 19.

"Neutrality" means the party wouldn't mind if pot became legalized. That is a far different position that the one taken by, say, President Barack Obama's drug czar, who recently visited Los Angeles and denounced the measure in the strongest terms.

Boxer and Brown may believe they dodged a big problem with Sunday's vote. This isn't the last you will hear about the state Democratic Party's position on this year's marquee ballot measure. While the candidates' position is clear, they will be challenged to separate themselves from the party that nominated them.

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