Most aren't actively supporting California initiative

It was just past 10 a.m. on Thursday as a trio of celebrities, a politician and several activists took their spots on a press conference panel before a dozen cameras, ready to announce their support for Prop. 19, the California ballot initiative to legalize marijuana.

They each had glasses of water, but an aide working on the event just couldn’t resist. “OK, anybody want anything stronger?”

The smattering of quips were inevitable — and probably perfectly fitting.

Despite years of “Just say no” PSAs, pop culture has never really taken things too seriously when it comes to the perils of pot. It’s been that way ever since at least 1948, when Robert Mitchum, Life magazine photographers in tow, headed off to a California prison farm to serve a sentence for marijuana possession. Every earnest call for “Just say no” has been made kitschy with every release of a “Harold and Kumar” or “Pineapple Express.”

“Pop culture is always on the edge,” singer Melissa Etheridge, who was joined by Danny Glover and Hal Sparks, said after the event. “We are like the teenagers; you tell us not to do it or say it, that is the first thing we are going to do. That is what our business of pop culture does, is to push these envelopes, to get people out of the fear of it. Just look at ‘Cheech and Chong.’ Hah. Hah. We laughed at it. I grew up going, ‘OK, there is something funny about this.'”

Hollywood’s involvement in this campaign, however, has been pretty mellow. Save for the celebs who turned out for the event, most aren’t exactly tripping over themselves to get involved or even to contribute money.

Outside the event at a Hollywood cafe, one No on 19 activist handed out fliers and argued that Hollywood figures, as role models, should reconsider their position because marijuana does damage to the brain and leads to career drug use.

Warranted or not, you got the feeling while listening the participants that they were taking some kind of a risk in “coming out” for the proposition, so to speak. Etheridge, who says she started using medical marijuana as she battled breast cancer, even compared it to coming out as a lesbian.

“It is a very personal choice,” she said. “It is how you want the world to see you and how you agree to live your life.”

During the press conference, the case was made for Yes on 19’s legalization. Steve Downing, a former deputy LAPD police chief, argued that precious resources are being wasted as officers spend their time writing tickets for misdemeanor possession.

Glover said that the “dark space we have been forced to inhabit around marijuana has to be broken.”

Although medical marijuana is legal in the state, Etheridge noted that she “didn’t want to look like I’m a criminal” to her kids.

A poll released Thursday showed the yes side losing ground — so the press conference, as well as a Buddhafest Saturday at Los Angeles Center Studios, probably take on extra importance in drawing attention.

Roger Salazar, spokesman for the No on 19 campaign, says his group is focusing on the initiative itself rather than the moral question of legalization. While there are No on 19 supporters who are opposed to the idea of making it legal, other orgs like the California Cannabis Assn. are also opposed, worried that it places regulation and taxing authority in the hands of local governments and that it will complicate access to existing medical marijuana dispensaries.

Salazar, too, couldn’t quite resist invoking what pop culture has done to pot, saying, “I think ‘Harold and Kumar’ should have gone to law school and help those guys write this initiative.”

ted.johnson@variety.com

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