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California’s second-highest state executive says it’s time to legalize pot

California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and his wife, Jennifer Siebel. (Jonathan Ernst / Reuters.)
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California’s lieutenant governor says it’s time his state joined Colorado and Washington in legalizing and regulating marijuana.

Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, a former San Francisco mayor known for his leadership on liberal causes, will lead an American Civil Liberties Union panel exploring the issue, the civil rights group announced on Thursday.

While Newsom is the highest-ranking lawmaker on the panel, it also includes a number of high-profile experts, including Keith Humphreys, a former senior policy analyst at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy; Erwin Chemerinsky; the dean of the University of California Irvine School of Law; and activists and officials involved in the Washington and Colorado initiatives.

A 2010 California ballot measure that would have legalized marijuana failed by an eight-point margin, but poll after poll shows support growing. In late September, the nonprofit, nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California found a record-high 52 percent of adults supported legalization, the first time support had breached 50 percent. An ACLU poll released on Thursday found 65 percent of likely 2016 voters would support legalizing pot, as long as it came with strict restrictions on driving under the influence and access to minors.

The ACLU cast legalizing pot as a solution to overcrowding in the state’s prisons, where the incarcerated population has exploded in recent decades. The per capita prison population in 2010 was nearly four times larger than that of 1980, according to official data compiled by the California Sentencing Institute.

“Marijuana prohibition has harmed communities and families by needlessly ensnaring hundreds of thousands of people in the overburdened criminal justice system, with people of color far more likely to be arrested and prosecuted,” Allen Hopper, the California ACLU’s director of criminal justice and drug policy said in Thursday’s statement.

Last November, Washington and Colorado voters approved legalizing the drug within their states by more than 10-point margins. The Obama administration’s late-August announcement that it would not challenge such laws put local officials at ease and emboldened activists concerned that federal laws would stymie state efforts.