Californians will vote this fall on whether to legalize marijuana -
and the measure has a real shot at passing
By Ari Berman
Aug 18, 2010
In 1996, California became the first state in the nation to legalize
marijuana for medical use. Now, with a ballot initiative up for a
vote in November, it could become the first to ratify an even more
striking landmark: the legalization of pot for recreational use.
Proposition 19 the Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis Act of 2010
treats pot much like alcohol after the repeal of Prohibition,
allowing each city and county to decide whether it wants to approve
and tax commercial sales of the drug. And regardless of what local
jurisdictions do, any Californian over 21 could possess up to an
ounce of marijuana, smoke it in private or at licensed
establishments, and grow a small amount for personal consumption.
"We're not requiring anyone to do anything," says Jim Wheaton, a
prominent First Amendment lawyer who drafted the ballot initiative.
"We're just repealing the laws that prevent it."
The driving force behind the measure is Richard Lee, the 47-year-old
activist and former Aerosmith roadie who helped spark the rise of
medical marijuana in California. As founder of Oaksterdam University,
the country's first self-proclaimed "Cannabis College," Lee put up
$1.3 million to gather the 430,000 signatures needed to put the
legalization initiative on the ballot this fall. Leading advocates of
drug reform urged him to wait until 2012, when Barack Obama is up for
re-election and young voters will be more likely to turn out. But in
March, after a poll he commissioned showed that 54 percent of
Californians support legalization, Lee insisted on moving forward.
Lee, who took up pot 20 years ago to dull the pain from an accident
that left him paralyzed from the waist down, believes that legalizing
marijuana can help fix California's devastated economy. In his
hometown of Oakland, the city council recently approved permits for
four indoor marijuana plantations the size of football fields, in a
high-profile bid to treat pot like any other legitimate business.
"I'm trying to get rid of that black-market culture," Lee says. His
campaign for the Tax Cannabis initiative smartly markets it as a
"common-sense solution to our broken budget," arguing that
legalization will provide the state with as much as $1.4 billion a
year in tax revenues roughly equivalent to the state's citrus
industry, and more than either alcohol or cigarettes.
The ballot initiative has provoked a sharp split in California
politics. Nearly every major elected official, including many top
Democrats, has come out against it. Sen. Dianne Feinstein signed the
ballot argument opposing the initiative, and gubernatorial candidate
Jerry Brown has gone to absurd lengths to try to distance himself
from the measure. "We've got to compete with China," he recently
declared. "And if everybody's stoned, how the hell are we going to make it?"
But it will take more than such over-the-top scare tactics to derail
the measure. A notable array of unions, civil rights groups and
law-enforcement officials has lined up to support legalization, and
even Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has said that "it's time for a
debate" on the issue. Polls show the measure has a real shot at
passing, and Lee has recruited an impressive team of veteran
political operatives, environmental advocates and union organizers to
manage the campaign. Taken together, it's the most effective and
well-organized campaign to end marijuana prohibition since the drug
was declared illegal in 1937.
"We've released a conveyer belt of endorsements showing the breadth
and depth of our support," says Dan Newman, an experienced Democratic
strategist who is working for Tax Cannabis. "It's not just a bunch of
The push to legalize pot wouldn't have been possible without the
widespread acceptance of medical marijuana. Pot which is now
distributed to an estimated 500,000 patients at hundreds of
dispensaries across California has become the state's largest cash
crop, with annual sales estimated at $14 billion.
Indeed, many drug-policy reformers always intended for medical
marijuana to be the first step on the road to full legalization.
"There was a hope and a belief that this would soften up the
opposition to broader legalization of marijuana," says Ethan
Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. "A growing
number of people are beginning to see dispensaries as assets to the
community. They're taking marijuana off the streets and paying taxes.
People see that this can be effectively regulated."
The main coalition supporting Tax Cannabis operates out of a bright
and modern storefront in downtown Oakland that once housed Oaksterdam
University, which has trained some 12,000 students in how to grow,
distribute and market marijuana. The effort marks the first time that
labor unions, civil rights groups and drug-policy reformers have
worked together, side by side, in the same initiative campaign. Their
main message is to emphasize that legalization isn't about catering
to the needs of potheads it's about rescuing the state from its $19
billion deficit and putting tens of thousands of unemployed
Californians to work. "We don't see Prop 19 as a marijuana issue,"
says Dan Rush, a union organizer with the United Food and Commercial
Workers who is lining up endorsements for the ballot initiative. "We
see it as a jobs creator and tax-revenue generator."
Armed with union mailers that describe cannabis as "California's
newest union-friendly green industry," Rush has secured an
endorsement from the Western States Council of the UFCW, which boasts
200,000 members. He's also won support from unions representing
longshoremen, communication workers and painters, and he hopes to get
the security workers, machinists and public employees onboard soon.
But convincing the state's political establishment to take a public
stance on legalization has been a challenge. "When I'm talking
one-on-one with union people or Democratic Party people, everybody
loves the idea," says Rush, an old-school organizer who owns three
Harleys and sports a dozen tattoos. "But they're afraid to come out
front." It's his job, he says, "to make this industry palatable by
illuminating its potential."
But Rush and other proponents of legalization aren't relying on
economic arguments alone to win over undecided voters. "There's no
one bumper sticker that will work," says Chris Lehane, a high-profile
Democratic strategist and former top adviser in the Clinton
administration who's advising the campaign. Legalization, advocates
point out, will also reduce a host of societal costs: the needless
arrests each year of some 78,000 Californians for marijuana-related
offenses, the overcrowding of the state prison system, the havoc
wreaked by Mexican drug cartels that rely on pot for 60 percent of
their revenue, the inability of police spread thin by budget cuts to
focus on violent crimes. Backers also emphasize that legalizing and
regulating marijuana will actually help keep pot away from kids, who
now say it's easier to buy weed than booze. "Swing voters, in their
gut, completely understand that banning marijuana outright has been a
total failure," says Stephen Gutwillig, the California director of
the Drug Policy Alliance, who has sat in on focus groups of women
from suburban Los Angeles. "They know it makes no sense to treat
marijuana differently than alcohol or tobacco. But we're relatively
early in the social discourse about how to fix this problem. There's
a comfort level that has to develop very quickly for Prop 19 to pass."
Despite the early momentum behind Prop 19, ballot initiatives are a
dicey game in California. Progressive activists in the state are
still smarting from the passage of Prop 8, which banned gay marriage
in 2008 thanks to a huge influx of money from the Christian right. To
defeat the measure, religious conservatives effectively targeted
black voters and ethnic groups an approach that could be replicated
in the fight over legalization.
The campaign against pot known as Public Safety First is being
managed by Wayne Johnson, a prominent Republican strategist in
Sacramento with ties to the religious right. So far, there's no
evidence that churches are devoting significant resources to defeat
the issue, as they did in the battle over gay marriage. But opponents
are employing the same sort of fearmongering tactics. Save
California, a "family values" group that fought to ban gay marriage,
is running ads that claim pot is "50 to 70 percent more
cancer-causing than cigarettes." John Lovell, a 65-year-old lobbyist
for law-enforcement groups in Sacramento, alleges that Prop 19 will
create "a preferred status for marijuana in the workplace," allowing
Californians to possess, use and sell pot on the job an effective
sound bite that happens to be completely untrue. Opponents also hope
to bury the measure in confusing technicalities: Public Safety First
calls it a "jumbled legal nightmare" and claims it would cause chaos
in California, allowing bus drivers to show up high for work and
jeopardizing $40 billion in federal contracts.
As in the battle over gay marriage, black voters are also emerging as
a key swing constituency. Alice Huffman, the influential head of the
California NAACP, endorsed Prop 19 after a recent study revealed that
African-Americans in the state are two to three times as likely as
whites to be arrested for marijuana offenses. But in recent months, a
black preacher from Sacramento named Ron Allen has risen from
obscurity to become the most outspoken public opponent of
legalization. A former-drug-addict-turned-anti-drug-crusader, Allen
appears regularly on major outlets like Fox News and visits black
churches to hammer home a simple message: that marijuana is the root
of all social evil.
"They might say it's not a gateway drug, but I want you to know, it
is a gateway drug," he thunders to the congregation at First
Tabernacle Baptist Church on a recent Sunday morning halfway
through a tour he's making of 100 churches statewide. "I started with
marijuana and graduated to crack cocaine."
Allen insists that backers of Prop 19 want to "legalize all drugs,"
including crack and Ecstasy, even though such substances will remain
illegal if the initiative passes. On his website, he claims that
4,100 congregations support his anti-marijuana position, but he
refuses to make the list public. He also boasts of holding three
doctorates from Sacramento Theological Seminary, including one in
evangelism. He calls Huffman, a longtime civil rights leader in
California, "Enemy No. 1 to the black church."
Allen owes his prominence to Alexandra Datig, a PR consultant and
recovering addict in Los Angeles, who promoted him as a leading
spokesman against legalization. The two met through Californians for
Drug Free Youth, after Datig had quit her job as a high-profile
prostitute for Heidi Fleiss and co-written a book, You'll Never Make
Love in This Town Again, chronicling her wild sexcapades with the
likes of Jack Nicholson. These days she denounces drugs with the
evangelical fervor of a born-again believer, renouncing Prop 19 as
"un-American" and insisting that indoor marijuana cultivation will
spread a killer fungus known as aspergillus.
The debunked claims made by figures like Datig and Allen which so
far appear to have done little to sway the black community raise
questions about the credibility of Prop 19's opponents. "To use
Bishop Allen as a barometer, I think they're really grasping at
straws," says the NAACP's Huffman. "It leads me to believe they don't
have much of a campaign." Other advocates of legalization are even
more blunt. "Not so long ago, the pro-pot people used to be the nutty
ones," says Doug Linney, a longtime environmental organizer who
serves as the lead political consultant for Tax Cannabis. "Now it's
just the opposite."
The black community isn't the only pivotal constituency in the battle
for legalization: The state's prison guards are also likely to play a
key role. Two years ago, when reform advocates in California placed
an initiative on the ballot that would have relaxed penalties for
nonviolent drug offenders, the measure seemed very likely to pass.
Major donors like George Soros funded the campaign, and the
initiative led in the polls for much of the year. Then the California
Correctional Peace Officers Association one of the most powerful
unions in the state spent $1 million on an ad campaign featuring
Dianne Feinstein denouncing the initiative as a "drug dealer's bill
of rights." In the end, the measure wound up losing by 19 points on
Election Day. "If big money comes in on the other side," says
Gutwillig of the Drug Policy Alliance, "it's very hard to win a
reform of this nature."
For now, though, the prison guards are staying out of the fight. The
union appears to have less of a stake in the measure than it did in
the 2008 campaign, which directly threatened to reduce jobs in the
prison industry. "At this time, we haven't taken a position on
Proposition 19, and it's not certain that we will," says JeVaughn
Baker, a spokesman for the union. The Tax Cannabis campaign,
meanwhile, has won the endorsement of many prominent cops in the
state, who argue that legalization will curb drug violence and free
up cash-strapped police departments to focus on more serious crimes.
"Like an increasing number of law enforcers, I have learned that most
bad things about marijuana especially the violence made inevitable
by an obscenely profitable black market are caused by the
prohibition, not by the plant," retired San Jose police chief Joseph
McNamara wrote in a recent op-ed for The San Francisco Chronicle.
This law-and-order approach plays well with soccer moms in Los
Angeles, who often provide the swing vote in California politics.
"Like most things in politics these days, it's going to come down to
the conflicted baby boomers," says Bill Carrick, a prominent
Democratic consultant based in Los Angeles. But leading Democrats are
still shying away from the measure, fearing that legalization will be
used against them as a wedge issue. At recent meetings, both the
California Democratic Party and the California Labor Federation voted
to remain neutral on Prop 19. "The Democratic point of view, which is
understandable, is that we don't want to be seen as the party of
drugs and dope," says Carrick.
In fact, advocates argue, the campaign to legalize pot could actually
have the opposite effect, sparking a "burnout turnout" that will
boost Democrats in November. When asked how the party can get
first-time Obama voters to show up this fall, the 78-year-old
chairman of the California Democratic Party, John Burton, gave a
one-word answer: "Pot." Indeed, polls indicate that legalization
could lure Obama voters to the polls like no other issue. The
progressive blog Firedoglake and Students for Sensible Drug Policy
recently launched a "Just Say Now" campaign, both online and through
college campuses, to turn out young voters. And Nate Silver, the
noted political statistician, believes that polling on pot, which
shows legalization with a 50-50 chance of passing, may undercount its
true support. In a reverse of the so-called Bradley Effect, in which
white voters support black candidates in public but vote against them
in private, voters may denounce legalization to pollsters but quietly
support it on Election Day. Silver dubs this the "Broadus Effect" in
honor of Calvin Broadus, better known as Snoop Dogg.
Like most ballot initiatives, the fight to legalize pot will
ultimately come down to money, especially since neither side has much
funding right now. In the first six months of this year, Public
Safety First raised only $41,000 most of it from the California
Police Chiefs Association and spent all but $19,000. Tax Cannabis
raised considerably more, though it still has only $62,000 in the
bank, a paltry number in California politics. (By comparison, the
campaigns for and against gay marriage spent a total of $80 million.)
Richard Lee, who launched the legalization measure, is largely tapped
out, and it's unclear if big-money supporters like George Soros will
join the fray. "I don't see anybody jumping in big-time tomorrow,"
says Nadelmann, who has coordinated funding for previous drug-reform
efforts. "But funders are keeping their ears open. So they're not saying no."
In an attempt to lure big money, Tax Cannabis recently enlisted
Marjan Philhour, a major Democratic Party fundraiser in San
Francisco, as the campaign's finance chair. To have a good shot at
passage, according to one high-ranking Democratic operative, the
group needs to raise at least $10 million. Ideally, strategists say
they would like to raise $15 million double what was spent to
legalize medical marijuana in 1996 which would enable them to run
TV ads statewide in the final month of the campaign.
If the measure does pass, proponents believe that the White House
will not challenge it in court much as New York was allowed to stop
enforcing alcohol laws in 1923, a decade before Congress ended
Prohibition. "I would hope the Obama administration and Attorney
General Holder would see this as an example of the genius of the
Founding Fathers, who looked at the states as 'crucibles of
democracy,' " says Wheaton, who drafted the ballot initiative. For
now, however, advocates concede that Prop 19 faces an uphill climb.
"We're fighting almost a hundred years of lies," says Mauricio
Garzon, the campaign's director. Similar measures failed in Alaska
and Nevada twice in the past decade as well as 38 years ago in
California, when the initiative was coincidentally also named Prop
19. "The burden of proof is always on the yes side to change the
status quo," says Mark DiCamillo, director of California's Field Poll.
Yet proponents of legalization are cautiously optimistic about the
current political climate. "If it fails, it fails temporarily," says
Dan Rush, who predicts victory this year. "We'll take what we've
learned from this initiative and create one that can win on the 2012
ballot." And if Democrats lose their congressional majority in
November, as some are predicting, perhaps they can go to California
and smoke away the pain.