California: Marijuana Supporters Ready for Likely Vote in November

January 12, 2010 – OAKLAND — Richard Lee, California’s best known marijuana entrepreneur, says he knew he was onto something back in 2007 when he took out an ad in an East Bay alternative newspaper asking people to contact him if they had an interest in learning about California’s medical marijuana industry.

“The phone rang off the hook immediately,” he said. “Within three or four days we had 100 people on a list.”
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Oaksterdam University was born that fall, launched with the mission of delivering “quality training to the cannabis industry.”

Within two years, more than 6,000 students had attended classes, additional campuses were opened in Los Angeles and Sonoma County, the original campus in downtown Oakland had moved into a new, 30,000-square-foot headquarters and winter quarter enrollment had sold out months in advance.

These days, Lee is thinking even bigger. He and his partners have shelled out more than $1 million to gather sufficient signatures to qualify for this November’s ballot an initiative that would legalize the adult possession of up to one ounce of marijuana anywhere in California.

It’s hardly a new idea. At least 17 times since 1971 someone has submitted an initiative to either legalize or decriminalize the possession of marijuana in California. Sixteen times the measures failed to qualify for the ballot, and the one measure that did advance, Proposition 19 in 1972, was rejected by two out of every three voters.

Lee believes public perceptions have evolved since then, and that the political climate is now ripe for legalizing marijuana.

He points to California’s burgeoning medical marijuana industry. “The reality is,” he said, “people have already accepted it.”

The Assembly Public Safety Committee on Tuesday is scheduled to vote on, and likely approve, a bill by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, that would legalize marijuana possession in California.

Although Ammiano says his bill would pass the Legislature if lawmakers “took the vote in the hallway,” it is unlikely the measure will advance this year much beyond the committee that Ammiano chairs.

“No one’s holding their breath that marijuana prohibition is going to end at the hands of the Assembly, Senate and governor,” said Stephen Gutwillig, California director for the national Drug Policy Alliance.

In the people’s hands

Instead, the real action could come at the ballot box this fall.

Lee and his team have collected about 700,000 voter signatures and intend to submit them to elections officials later this month, making it a virtual certainty that California voters will have the issue before them in 2010.

The coming campaign will not be a ragtag operation run by volunteers working out of a local head shop. Its chief political strategist predicts supporters will spend $10 million or more to try to win voter approval, and notes the measure was strategically drafted in an attempt to address concerns that swing voters expressed in a series of focus groups organized by the sponsors.

The resulting document is not a pot-lover’s pipe dream, but rather a political document designed to win votes: It sets the legal age at 21, enhances criminal penalties for sales to minors, prohibits the use of marijuana in public places and in the presence of children, gives every city the right to decide whether to allow marijuana sales, and emphasizes the ability of local and state governments to regulate and tax all sales.

Explained Doug Linney, the Oakland-based political consultant who is heading the campaign, “We’ve tried to make this not just a ‘wouldn’t it be cool, dude,’ effort.”

Polls show a shift

The effort comes after a Field Poll conducted in April showed 56 percent support among likely California voters for legalizing and taxing marijuana. That result, Lee said, is nearly identical to a private poll he commissioned before launching the initiative.

Lee believes voter concerns about the economy and state budget are responsible for shifting public sentiment in favor of the idea.

Not everyone, even those in the drug-reform community, believes the timing is right. The Drug Policy Alliance, whose deep-pocketed directors include billionaire investor George Soros, declined to support the signature-gathering effort.

“We think that 2010 is slightly premature and that this election cycle is not as auspicious as 2012 would be,” Gutwillig said. “It’s not clear that there’s going to be big money lined up in support of a California initiative in 2010.”

Lee said he anticipates much of the funding will be generated online from marijuana-legalization advocates around the country who will see California as a potential trailblazer.

Foes plan to push back

At this point, it’s not clear what groups or individuals might provide funding for an opposition campaign, but substantial grass-roots opposition is anticipated.

“We know from our polling that it’s not going to be unanimous,” said Ken Masterson, whose San Francisco-based firm headed the signature-gathering effort.

Law enforcement groups, notably the California Narcotics Officers Association, will be at the forefront of the opposition, which might also include religious groups opposing the measure on moral grounds.

“The pope’s been against this for 500 years,” Lee noted.

Paul Chabot of Riverside, founder and president of the Coalition for a Drug Free California, said opponents will be mobilized from the outset this year, unlike in 1996 when the success of the initiative to legalize medical marijuana caught them by surprise.

“Nobody thought Proposition 215 had a chance,” Chabot said. “We were all stunned when it passed.”

Chabot, a former naval intelligence officer and a reserve officer in the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department, said it’s essential that “law enforcement not be fighting this by themselves.” He said opponents hope to assemble a coalition that will include church groups, PTAs, doctors and others.

‘Wrong message to kids’

Chabot said opponents are eager to debate the health and public safety effects of marijuana, but the principal argument will be against the measure’s symbolic significance.

“Our primary concern,” he said, “is that it sends the wrong message to kids. The fact is that there’s more harm than good that comes from smoking this stuff.”

If opponents wage a serious campaign, Chabot said, he is confident they will defeat the measure.

“Let’s put it on the ballot and get the information out there,” he said. “When the truth gets out, people will go out and make the right decision.”

At this early stage, it is unclear whether traditional political interest groups will weigh in, and if they do, to what degree.

Linney said although polling shows much higher support among Democrats than Republicans, the issue may not shape up as strictly partisan. He notes a number of prominent conservative thinkers, including former Secretary of State George Shultz, the late columnist William F. Buckley Jr. and retired Orange County Superior Court Judge Jim Gray, a libertarian, have argued the war on drugs has done more harm than illicit drugs themselves.

“The libertarians are guarding our right flank,” Linney said. “I look forward to a less partisan debate than we’ve seen on many other issues.”

A political pickle

It’s unlikely, he said, that many incumbent politicians will publicly support the measure, although it has been endorsed by former Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata, now running for mayor of Oakland.

“This is an issue in which the people are leading the politicians, clearly,” Linney said. “A liberal who wants to not look too liberal to middle-of-the-road voters will have a hard time coming out for this.”

Lee said he anticipates a sharp generational divide. Polling indicates only about 20 percent of voters older than 60 support legalization, while 60 percent of voters under 45 like the idea.

He believes supporters have momentum on their side.

“We have an army now,” he said. “It used to be we weren’t taken seriously. We couldn’t get any media coverage, and when we did, we’d be the wackos quoted at the end of the story.” By Timm Herdt. Source.

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