Just about every name in North Coast weed was there, packed into a sweaty, crowded theater for a glimpse of California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom.
Selfies with the photogenic former San Francisco mayor weren't the only reasons Garberville's Redwood Playhouse was standing room only the afternoon of May 29 — it was the first substantial outreach from Sacramento's power players to Humboldt's splintered-but-increasingly-vocal marijuana growers.
Newsom was flanked by local stakeholders, politicians and members of his Blue Ribbon Commission on Marijuana Policy, a 21-member panel consisting of, as he put it, experts both advocating for and vehemently against pot.
Garberville's forum was rowdy but overwhelmingly upbeat. Rhys Williams, Newsom's communications coordinator, said the panel has met in Oakland and Los Angeles to hear from the public and stakeholders, and that Garberville (population 913) had the biggest turnout. He later offered a hat tip on Twitter.
Newsom, Congressman Jared Huffman and Assemblyman Jim Wood started the morning at Wonderland Nursery before piling into Newsom's black SUV and heading into the hills for a tour of a father-son pot farm. Press — at least the Journal — was turned away. San Francisco Chronicle reporter Joe Garofoli — photographer in tow — apparently tagged along with the entourage, but, four days later, the paper hadn't published anything about the tour.
Newsom didn't say much about that portion of the visit, simply that he visited a father-son farm and a nursery that was an "impressive operation by any objective assessment and standard."
Williams told the Journal that they chose the Chronicle for an exclusive because it was Northern California's "paper of record" — an indication that the 350 miles between the Bay Area and the Oregon border is still lost on Sacramento — and because he didn't want to turn Newsom's "solid policy fact finding mission" into a "travelling media show."
But members of the panel got an earful from the hundreds of folks that turned out to ask questions and give feedback about the potential — and by all accounts inevitable — state legalization of marijuana in 2016.
The crowd booed when Huffman used the word "trafficking" and recoiled at "marijuana" — cannabis is the preferred term, one commenter said. But the mood was generally jovial, with Huffman and Newsom in a full-on charm offensive.
There were cheers and resounding applause for wildlife biologist Mourad Gabriel, who said, "We are probably in consensus here that trespass marijuana cultivation is not acceptable;" for a member of the public who decried the dangers and litter associated with butane hash extraction; and for Newsom, who warned of the big money influences already appearing in Sacramento in regards to marijuana legislation. "With respect," Newsom said, "they're writing a lot of you guys out and we cannot let that happen."
The panel, co-led by Newsom, a former White House drug policy advisor and the executive director of the ACLU of Northern California, is preparing a report to be released in July that Newsom hopes will guide the groups that are working to put a legalization measure on next year's ballot.
The report, Newsom insists, will not be prescriptive — as in it won't necessarily make recommendations about possible legislation — but it will seek to inform initiative writers about the many, many technicalities and ramifications of legalization.
Among those: taxation, regulation, public safety, education, prior convictions, environmental protections, DUIs, advertising — the list goes on, and each category yields dozens of subtopics.
Every meeting, Newsom told reporters after the forum, brings up new concerns and challenges. One of the biggest distinctions to come out of the Garberville meeting, he said, was the notion of revenue share.
"If you're going to allow that tax to be at the retail, that's going to disproportionately benefit big urban centers at the expense of rural communities, especially the six counties up here," he said.
Another major decision for initiative writers is selecting a regulatory agency. Mere mention of the Alcoholic Beverage Control during the public forum drew hisses from the crowd, and Newsom said that agency is already overworked and understaffed. And he understands the resentment, saying marijuana discussions are overlooking state agencies. "It would be very helpful to allow us the opportunity to engage the bureaucracy, so to speak, to help inform this process because they're the ones that are going to be responsible for implementation."
Newsom poked at Sacramento — both to reporters and in the public forum — but it's unclear if that was calculated approachability for the SoHum set. After all, Newsom is a savvy politician, and made a name for himself as a young mayor of San Francisco who pushed the envelope on gay marriage and marijuana. (He's also gearing up for a run for governor in 2018.) But he certainly knew the right things to say that day, chiming in to respond to public speakers at times and letting others on the panel fill in the gaps.
"I love that this forum opened up with the word trust," he said following the meeting. "How can you trust Sacramento, that hasn't been able to get their arms around the medical restrictions since 1996, to get their arms around a legalized system?"
Luke Bruner of California Cannabis Voice Humboldt helped arrange Newsom's tour of Wonderland and the farm. "They were pretty blown away," Bruner said. "When they woke up that morning I don't think they thought their day would end in that way. ... I doubt most fact-finding trips are that much fun."
Surprised as they may have been, Bruner said the visitors were prepared — they'd researched the issue, and were asking the right questions. "They came up here with an open mind and wanted to check this out and learn about this," Bruner said. "I think when they said they're here to defend small farms I think they meant it."
That remains to be seen. Newsom's panel meets in Fresno to discuss taxation the day this issue of the Journal comes out. An initiative being written by the Drug Policy Alliance is gaining steam. Others are likely, if not certain, to appear — a point Newsom was careful to mention. "There's a lot of money out there," he said. "There is no quote unquote draft that is the consensus draft of those powerful groups with a lot of resources behind them."
And while Gov. Jerry Brown's most noteworthy comments on marijuana in recent years poked fun at potheads, Newsom said it was Brown, as California's attorney general, who gave San Francisco cover to sign its citywide medical marijuana legislation. "It wouldn't surprise me that he leans into [legalization] tomorrow," Newsom said. "It wouldn't surprise me if he doesn't lean into it 'til after November 2016."
Finally, Newsom said, there's a lot to be learned from the states where legalization has gone into effect. But that doesn't mean there's a one-size-fits-all answer to be found there.
"Those states have nothing to do with California as it relates to this issue," Newsom said. "It can't be Colorado-lite, or Washington-heavy, or Oregon-esque or Alaska-ish. It has to be uniquely Californian."
If that means anything, we're in for a good fight.