Governor Newsom Owes It to Voters to End California’s Drug War

    California Governor Gavin Newsom (D) has comfortably won the recall election aimed at removing him from office, with a 30-point lead as of September 15. He can now complete his first term. With his position secure for now, advocates say that Newsom should consider the debt he owes his Democratic and progressive base, who turned out for him in large numbers, and end the drug war in California.

    The recall effort first emerged in February 2020. It required 1.5 million signatures to be certified, and an inital November 2020 deadline was extended to March 2021 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Recall efforts revolved around around Newsom’s handling of pandemic restrictions, rising homelessness, unemployment benefits mismanagement, and an infamous unmasked dinner party at a restaurant called the French Laundry.

    Ultimately, 46 different candidates registered to try to replace Newsom, with Larry Elder (R), a conservative talk-radio host from Los Angeles, the leading alternative. But no major candidates opposed Newsom from within his own party. And the recall proved polarizing even among Republicans —neither the state GOP nor prominent Republicans at the national level endorsed a candidate. Newsom called figures from President Biden to Senator Bernie Sanders to his aid.


     Path Forward Includes Safe Consumption Sites

    Newsom, first elected in November 2018, will face his first regular reelection campaign in 2022. While several issues—the pandemic, homelessness and crime—are sure to dominate the election cycle , there is another that Newsom may want to consider when building a coalition among voters.

    “I think drug policy will play a critical role during California’s future elections.”

    “I think [drug policy] will play a critical role during California’s future elections,” Jeanette Zanipatin, California director for the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), told Filter. “During the pandemic we did see local jurisdictions decarcerating their jails. We’ve also seen an increase in local jurisdictions adopting a public health approach first, as opposed to an enforcement-first approach, to deal with folks who may be unhoused or substance users.”

    “I think the Governor’s overall record on drug policy reform has been really great,” she said. “He’s been supportive of the work we’ve done in the past year and a half that he’s been in office.”

    Since his first gubanatorial campaign, Newsom has supported one of DPA’s top demands in California: to pass a bill allowing four cities to open a safe consumption sites. People could use illegal drugs at these overdose prevention centers, as they’re known, with trained staff on hand to act in the case of an overdose, and to help connect guests with other health services.

    Currently, the overdose prevention center effort—Senate Bill 57—has passed the state Senate but must still pass the House. The House may consider voting on it as soon as December, when the next legislative session begins. Zanipatin is confident Newsom will support it—unlike his predecessor, Jerry Brown (D), who vetoed it.

    Newsom also approved a bill that allows the state government to authorize syringe service programs (SSP) in cities and towns if a provider applies to open one. Local governments in places like Eureka and Chico have fought hard to prevent SSP, a key tool for prevention of HIV, hepatitis C and other harms, from existing in their towns. The state law doesn’t completely protect SSP, but it gives them a chance to open if local governments oppose them.


    A Criminal-Justice Record in Need of Improvement

    The day before the recall election, the California legislature passed Senate Bill 73, sending it to the governor’s desk for approval.

    Current law requires that if people are caught in possession of more than a certain quantity of illegal drugs, or if they have previously been convicted of various drug-related felonies, judges must sentence them to jail or prison time. SB73 would end mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug charges, giving judges the discretion to order probation or rehabilitative programs instead. Gov. Newsom has until October 10 to sign the bill, and would make a statement of intent by doing so.

    Ending the drug war will still not end some of the worst human rights violations in California’s criminal justice system. Newsom has a mixed record in this area. In November 2020, at the height of the pandemic, he signed several bills to reform the state’s prison system. These included expanding parole eligibility to people above age 50; allowing transgender people to be housed in facilities that match their gender; and limiting the use of racially discriminatory sentencing practices.

    “We were able to get rid of a sentence enhancement that mostly impacts folks who have been charged with a prior drug offense.”

    Despite these advances, in 2020 Newsom also vetoed a bill that would have protected incarcerated people from officers and residents who testify against them as “confidential informants” without providing evidence of violations. Parole boards being able to rely on potentially false testimony to deny people early release makes it easier to keep people in prison longer. Lawyers for prisoners held in solitary confinement were among those who condemned Newsom’s veto.

    Previously, in October 2019, Newsom approved a bill to end “sentencing enhancements” that increased sentences for people facing felony charges if they had served prior prison sentences.

    “We were able to get rid of one of the sentence enhancements that mostly impacts folks who have been charged with a prior drug offense,” said Zanipatin. “Sentence enhancements pretty much tie the hands of judges in the sentencing process. [And they] exacerbate state costs with regards to incarceration.”

    An effort currently in the legislature, Senate Bill 483, would make this reform retroactive to all sentences before January 2020, requiring courts to re-sentence eligible people. If passed—and if signed by Gov. Newsom—this will help even more people who are incarcerated on drug convictions.



    Photograph by Gage Skidmore via Flickr/Creative Commons 2.0

    DPA previously provided a restricted grant to The Influence Foundation, which operates Filter, to support a Drug War Journalism Diversity Fellowship.

    • Alexander is Filter’s staff writer. He writes about the movement to end the War on Drugs. He grew up in New Jersey and swears it’s actually alright. He’s also a musician hoping to change the world through the power of ledger lines and legislation. Alexander was previously Filter‘s editorial fellow.

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