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California Pot Initiative Opposed By Beer Industry

First Posted: 09/21/10 11:22 AM ET Updated: 05/25/11 06:45 PM ET

Beer And Marijuana

The California Beer & Beverage Distributors is spending money in the state to oppose a marijuana legalization proposition on the ballot in November, according to records filed with the California Secretary of State. The beer sellers are the first competitors of marijuana to officially enter the debate; backers of the initiative are closely watching liquor and wine dealers and the pharmaceutical industry to see if they enter the debate in the remaining weeks.

The opposition to pot among beer makers, however, is not unanimous among the CBBD's membership. Sierra Nevada and Stone Brewing Co., microbrews that began in California but have become popular national brands, both lashed out at the CBBD after news of the distributor's donation was reported on Celebstoner.com, a popular website focusing on marijuana-related news, and Alternet.com.

"Stone is not a part of this campaign in any way. This issue has caught us off guard," said a statement from the San Diego-based microbrewery, calling itself "merely a non-voting Allied Member of the CA Beer & Beverage Distributors (CBBD).As such, Stone Brewing does not/cannot participate in the political action decisions of the CBBD."

A statement from Sierra Nevada said that the company has "requested the CBBD to remove our name from their list of members, and also to disassociate the brewery from this and any future political actions."

The last thing a California microbrew needs is to be associated with the effort against legalizing marijuana. "We regret any implied association with this action by the CBBD, and maintain our independence and neutrality regarding matters of politics," the Sierra statement said. "The CBBD does not represent Sierra Nevada's political interests in any way, and does not represent the brewery's stance on the issue."

The CBBD did not return calls for comment; it donated $10,000 to Public Safety First, a committee organized to oppose the proposition, on Sept. 7, 2010, though the contribution was only recently made public. The alcohol industry has long seen illicit drugs as a threat to sales, as consumers may substitute pot for booze. A night spent on the couch smoking marijuana and watching television is a night not spent at the bar.

Public Safety First is largely funded by a different industry whose interests are threatened by the legalization of marijuana: law enforcement. Police forces are entitled to keep property seized as part of drug raids and the revenue stream that comes from waging the drug war has become a significant source of support for local law enforcement. Federal and state funding of the drug war is also a significant supplement to local forces' budgets.

The California Narcotics Officers' Association has donated $20,500; the California Police Chiefs Association has contributed $30,000. The Placer County Deputy Sheriff's Association, the California Peace Officers Association, the California District Attorney Association and the Peace Officers Association of Los Angeles County have all contributed, as well. Los Angeles Sheriff Lee Baca has been an outspoken opponent. Earlier this months, current and former heads of the Drug Enforcement Administration held a press conference in Washington to oppose the proposition and urge the White House to sue to stop it if it passes.

The pro-legalization forces, however, have caught at least one break: The prison guards are staying neutral. One of the most potent political forces in California is the California Correctional Peace Officers Association. The prison guards spent more than a million dollars in 2008 to defeat a proposition that would have sent some nonviolent drug offenders into treatment rather than to prison -- a law that would have cut down on overcrowding and overtime.

So far, the prison guards' bosses have gotten involved -- the California Correctional Supervisors Organization has given $7,500 -- but the guards themselves are on the sidelines.

Advocates for Proposition 19, meanwhile, are running the campaign on a shoestring budget. Wealthy individuals who generally bankroll the legalization movement such as Peter Lewis, the head of Progressive auto insurance, are sitting out.

Organized labor, however, is stepping into the breach. The Service Employees International Union, a major presence in California, has endorsed the proposition. The Teamsters in September made its first successful foray into organizing pot growers. The United Food and Commercial Workers is backing the initiative and organizing cannabis club employees in the Bay Area. The teachers union, citing the revenue that could be raised for the state, is also backing the initiative.

On Saturday, Roger Salazar, a spokesman for Public Safety First, was confronted on CNN over his group's alliance with the beer distributors. He blamed it on the forklift operators. "Let's keep in mind the beer and beverage distributors are the folks who deliver beer and beverage products. The truck driver, the forklift drivers, you know, the warehouse workers. You know, these are folks who have traffic safety and employee safety issues, first and foremost," Salazar said, though the beer distributors are the only distributor of any product to oppose the proposition.

Mason Tvert, head of the organization SAFER, which makes the case that marijuana is less harmful than alcohol, told Salazar that driving or operating a fork lift while high would still be illegal if the proposition becomes law -- just as alcohol is legal but it's against the law to drive while drunk.

"With all due respect to this gentleman, he is a political consultant being paid by the booze industry to protect their turf," said Tvert. "We also need to consider the fact that this gentleman mentions all the jobs that are created by the alcohol industry. These are all jobs that can be created by the marijuana industry as well. And at the same time, we're giving Californians the ability to use a substance like marijuana that doesn't contribute to domestic violence and sexual assault and overdose... and all the other problems that alcohol contributes to."

Stephen Gutwillig, the state director for the Drug Policy Alliance in California, noted the irony of cops working together with the beer lobby. "Who knows better than law enforcement the violence, death and disease booze inflicts on our society? The Feds clock it at $200 billion a year, including alcohol's direct involvement in up to 30 percent of violent crime every year. Marijuana consumption has none of those associations. The cop-run No on 19 campaign getting in bed with the alcohol lobby would be amusing if the implications weren't so nauseating," he said.

UPDATE: Rhonda Stevenson, a spokesman for the CBBD, said that the lobby does not oppose legalizing marijuana in principle, but objects to the specific proposition. She added that Sierra Nevada and Stone do not contribute to their Political Action Committee, so none of their money has been invested in opposition to the initiative.

"First and foremost, we are not opposed to the legalization of marijuana. We have no position on that...That's for the voters to decide. Second of all, we do not think of [marijuana] as a competitive product in the marketplace," she said. "That's not the issue. Our issue is it's a poorly written initiative. When prohibition was repealed, there was already a regulatory system in place to deal with the distribution or sale of alcohol. Under this initiative, there is not going to be anything in place state run. It's going to be 500-some different counties and cities" involved in regulating the sale and distribution of marijuana.

Indeed, when California legalized medical marijuana, regulation moved in fits and starts in different parts of the state. Oakland, where medical pot was more pervasive, moved to regulate dispensaries long before Los Angeles did, for instance. Different communities had different responses to legalization. If marijuana is legalized for recreational uses, as well, it's reasonable to assume that there will be accompanying regulatory failures and successes in various parts of the state. Localities, however, will be able to rely to some degree on the experience over the past 14 years with medical marijuana.

Ryan Grim is the author of This Is Your Country On Drugs: The Secret History of Getting High in America


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