Just who intends to puff, puff, pass on Proposition 19?
By David Downs
August 25, 2010
Jennifer Soares came out of the closet on April 17, 2010, but not in
a gay way. She's a drug lawyer against legalization.
Sitting on a legal panel at the International Cannabis & Hemp Expo at
the Cow Palace, Soares was asked by an audience member her thoughts
about Proposition 19, the Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis Act of
2010, which will appear on the ballot November 2. With the pungent
smell of pot wafting through the endless rows of booths advertising
everything from hemp clothing to THC lollipops, Soares nervously
spoke into the microphone.
"All I can say is, you guys should read the proposition and make your
own decision," she told the crowd of hippies, burners, and industry
ilk. "Don't listen to what everybody else has to say. You should read
Soares expected her comment to be followed by boos. But it wasn't.
Then fellow panelist and noted reformer Bill Panzer added that he
wasn't especially fond of Prop 19, either. "That made me feel a
little bit more comfortable so I said a couple more things," Soares
recalled. "I was very hesitant at first to come out openly against
Prop 19, because it's sort of this thing like, 'How can you be
pro-legalization but anti-Prop 19? It doesn't make sense?'"
However, the boos started online shortly thereafter. According to
Soares, "it just skyrocketed immediately after that."
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The lawyer began getting scathing calls at her office. In the wired
world of drug law reform, she's become a bit infamous, and the next
time she spoke out publicly at Dr. Greenthumb & Tommy Chong's
Spring Gathering in San Bernardino on May 8 the boos in the crowd
Though Soares says she does not smoke weed herself, she's part of a
group of fringe cannabis activists, growers, dispensary owners, and
casual stoners who have aligned with cops, big business, and anti-gay
marriage conservatives to denounce the most sweeping attempt at
legalizing marijuana in California in thirty years. On the radical
left, personal unhappiness with Prop 19 recently boiled over into
fiery rhetoric containing lies traditionally told by law enforcement.
The debate has crossed the line into physical threats against these
so-called "Stoners Against Legalization." And their "no" vote could
send the close race down in defeat.
From its inception, Proposition 19, the Regulate, Control and Tax
Cannabis Act of 2010, was contentious among reformers. If passed, it
would treat cannabis similar to how society treats alcohol. That
means it would be regulated and taxed. It would also end California's
Wild West days of growing pot. Under Prop 19, only adults over 21
could possess and grow a limited amount of cannabis for personal use.
They could not give it to those under 21. Smoking marijuana in public
or around kids would be forbidden. Furthermore, counties in the state
would be able to opt in or opt out of allowing the commercial
cultivation and sale of cannabis.
Started by hemp-activist-turned-Oakland-educator Richard Lee, Prop 19
began with a split from more hard-line reformers in the Bay Area. The
proposition was the subject of focus groups and tested in polls to
attract a majority vote in California, said Lee, sitting in the
third-floor lobby of his Oaksterdam University in downtown Oakland.
That meant it had to appeal to swing voters like soccer moms who are
concerned with keeping drugs away from their kids. Those moms are
unhappy that pot is easier to get than alcohol, and would vote for
But Lee's centrist plan did not please famed older radicals like
Dennis Peron and the late "Hemperor" Jack Herer, who wanted maximum
legalization with minimum government involvement. At their most
extreme, radical reformers want to throw open the jails and prisons,
and grant pardons to all marijuana drug offenders. They want no
restriction on giving marijuana to kids and few limits on possession,
cultivation, and sales.
Meanwhile, what might be called the mainstream drug law reform
community, groups like NORML and the Drug Policy Alliance, has had
its own problems with Tax Cannabis 2010. Still smarting from an
expensive defeat in 2008 over the Proposition 5 "rehab not jail"
initiative, they told Lee not to press forward in 2010. Midterm
voters tend to be more conservative, they said. Lee should wait until
2012, when the Obama re-election vote could drive turnout on a
But Lee liked his odds in 2010. The recession makes California's
expensive drug policy less tenable by the day. The Great Depression
helped ended alcohol prohibition, he said, and the Great Recession
could help end pot prohibition. So Lee pulled $1.4 million out of his
Oakland businesses to get enough signatures to place Prop 19 on the
ballot. Since then, the entire world has been watching the race, and
while mainstream drug law reformers have kept their money out,
they're vocally supporting him.
The fringe, however, has different ideas.
Soares represents medical marijuana dispensary owners in Southern
California, where she often faces a very hostile environment from
local cities and counties. While medical marijuana has flourished in
Northern California, places like Anaheim, San Diego, and Irvine have
banned dispensaries and continue to fight them in court. It's this
heated environment that has turned Soares against Prop 19. Because
Prop 19 allows cities and counties to opt in or opt out of commercial
sales, she says people in "dry" counties like Orange have no reason
to vote for it, because they have nothing to gain. She wants the
state to mandate commercial sales of pot in such conservative hotbeds.
"In Southern California, the mindset is 'Prop 19 is not going to
happen for us,'" Soares said. "The mindset of the dispensary owner
down here is, 'We'll just stay medical, because we're not going to be
able to do recreational anyway.'"
Lee says he had to allow counties to opt in or out in order to skirt
federal drug laws. But he might've failed to fully grasp the Southern
Dispensary owners down south are like beaten dogs, loathe to provoke
their master, according to Soares. The prospect of recreational use
makes Southern California clubs fearful of renewed crackdowns on
medical usage and more vigorous DEA raids.
"It's not just Southern California that's having issues with medical
marijuana," she said. "Recreational is not going to be any better."
Lee says places like San Diego should change policy at the ballot box
through local voter initiatives of their own. "Just because the local
county supervisor is an asshole doesn't mean they don't have the
votes," he said. "If they can collect signatures, it's easy. So local
activists have to get busy and do it."
But Soares speaks to an even bigger psychic divide that's more
ancient: the ongoing rivalry between Northern and Southern
California. She speculates that the north's lax policies will create
a climate where Los Angeles is beholden to Oakland for its pot needs.
Since Lee is from there, he will profit off the restrictive climate down south.
"For me, it's great Oakland is going to have a measure for them, but
they are pushing it on the rest of the state," said Soares. "I just
don't think that this proposition is written good enough for the rest
of the state to help Oakland out."
There have even been news reports that growers in Northern California
are worried about the consequences Prop 19 might have on their
economy. But Berkeley Patient's Care Collective manager Erik Miller,
who deals with growers all the time, says he thinks most of them are
in favor of the proposition. "I've noticed that the news likes to put
people on from Humboldt that claim they're against it because the
region could lose money, but I think that's a minority of people that
are selfish," he said. "Obviously I haven't conducted a poll, but
maybe 90 percent are in favor of it. Having some protections so
people aren't being carted off is worth it, even if the price drops a
little bit. Our medicine should be cheaper anyway, shouldn't it?"
The Humboldt Medical Marijuana Advisory Panel, which represents some
local growers, distributors, and other cannabis services, is also
supporting Prop 19. HUMMAP Secretary Charley Custer said he's not
seeing critical growers hitting the streets or handing out
literature. Most are for change, even if it's incremental. "We're all
going to be voting for it, with various reservations, some more than
others," he said. "The strongest criticism I've seen happened at our
forum. The youngsters are furious this thing embalms sanctions
against a 22-year-old giving a joint to a 19-year-old in the State of
California's constitution. But that provision is almost impossible to
enforce or indeed to prevent."
For Soares, Prop 19 amounts to not enough change. But some of her
peers want much, much more.
Dragonfly de la Luz, a San Francisco-based cannabis and travel writer
for Skunk Magazine, says "the universe" gave her her name a couple
years back. But the Internet made Dragonfly a name thanks to her blog
titled "Stoners Against the Prop 19 Tax Cannabis Initiative."
First posted in July alongside photos of the dreadlocked woman
hitting a three foot-long joint, her screed has been widely
circulated and reposted since then. She has 78 comments on her site,
and plenty of haters across the 'net. On the political spectrum of
left to right, Dragonfly represents the point where the radical
legalization left falls off the edge of the map and into political oblivion.
Chasing an endless summer around the globe while smoking weed,
Dragonfly says when she first heard of Prop 19 last year, she was
stoked. But then she read it.
"I'm like, 'Is this what legalization looks like?' I just don't think
this was what Peter Tosh had in mind when he implored us to legalize it."
Her thousand-word criticism of Prop 19 boils down to two main issues:
It doesn't go far enough, and Prop 19 represents "the
corporatization" of cannabis.
She notes that even though about 61,000 Californians are arrested for
marijuana crimes each year, that number will not drop to zero on
November 3. Those under 21 without a medical marijuana card can still
be arrested, and adults who give weed to those under 21 can also get
in trouble with the law. So can unlicensed dealers.
"We should be able to buy our cannabis wherever we want," said
Dragonfly. "We're not forced to only buy our alcohol from Safeway."
Lee says regulation of sales is the whole point, as opposed to the
"anything goes" environment currently on the streets.
But Dragonfly's biggest problem seems to be Lee himself and what he
represents to her and other radical reformers. "This proposition
wasn't written by activists; it was written by businessmen," she
said. "Its aim is the corporatization of cannabis. This might be our
last chance to stop it."
Actually, Lee used to be a stage-lighting tech for Aerosmith and
started out as an activist with a hemp store in Texas. He's taught
more than 10,000 people how to grow cannabis and open dispensaries
through his Oaksterdam University. He was instrumental in passing
several drug law reform measures in Oakland.
Dragonfly erroneously says growers who want to legally cultivate will
have to pay $211,000 a year to do so. "Obviously there's no space for
the mom-and-pop small-time farmer who have been living off marijuana
legally since 1996."
But only Oakland has considered charging $211,000 for a large-scale
cultivation permit, and the city would still allow rather large
personal grows (32 square-feet, or no more than 72 plants, and 3
pounds of dried processed medical cannabis) without a permit. Prop 19
also allows for individuals to grow for personal use. Furthermore, an
independent RAND Corporation study concluded that cities that erect
stiff barriers to entry for commercial growers and cultivators could
be undercut by cities that don't, creating a competitive growing
Dragonfly says she's aligned with Prop 215 activist Dennis Peron, who
also has come out against Prop 19. Peron has said publicly that he
should be allowed to give pot to kids without fear of legal
repercussion. Dragonfly and Peron support a different ballot
initiative that failed to get enough signatures in 2009 called the
Herer Initiative, named after Herer, who died this year. Its 2012
prospects are also politically dead in the water.
The so-called Herer Initiative calls for throwing open the jail and
prison gates and pardoning all drug offenders. It would allow people
to possess twelve pounds of pot, and limits taxation to $10 per ounce
rather that Prop 19's suggested $50. It caps the cost of a commercial
license at $1,000 and states no tax revenue could go to law enforcement.
Even Soares believes there is no way the Herer Initiative would pass.
And the family of Jack Herer has also asked people like Dragonfly to
stop using his name.
"Jack 'wanted it all' and Prop 19 is just part of that dream," wrote
son Dan Herer in a letter to members of the cannabis community.
"Unfortunately Jack passed away before Prop 19 made the 2010 ballot;
so many people think he would still oppose it. We don't believe that,
and we ask that everyone stop saying he would cling to that position
as we move toward the Nov. 2 vote. He was smart and had the political
savvy to know that once a measure is on the ballot, the time for
bickering has passed. That is why he campaigned for Prop 215 despite
its shortcomings. That is why, were he able, he would now be telling
voters to rally around and Vote Yes on Prop 19."
Dragonfly wants to end prohibition without mainstream regimes like
taxation, regulation, and business, but at least she tries to back up
her point of view. Some of her peers are proving just as capable of
outright lies as Prop 19's standard enemies on the right.
Sitting in the audience at Soares' coming-out panel was a shadowy
group of around ten medical cannabis users who have launched an
anonymous attack web site called Stop19.com. The site clearly
indicates a need to put down the bong.
The site says "the Prop 19 Cartel" has large-scale growing permits in
Oakland. The only problem is, Oakland has not issued large-scale
cultivation permits to anyone.
The site also erroneously claims, "large tobacco companies have
purchased land and strain trademarks in anticipation of Prop 19
passing. Nothing will stop tobacco companies from supplying
low-quality cannabis laced with additives at any price they choose."
Actually, federal interstate commerce laws prevent tobacco companies
from entering the market, according to Lee and NORML. "Getting
involved in California marijuana would poison them," said Dale
Gieringer, spokesperson for California NORML.
"It's all urban myth," Lee added. "None of it is true. They call me a
crazy, insane millionaire, but I spent it. Politics is an expensive
habit. Lee says he drives a '97 Pontiac Bonneville and has lived in a
one-bedroom apartment near Lake Merritt for ten years.
Stop19.com uses a domain-by-proxy company to hide the identity of its
owners, and has a disclaimer on its site saying none of the contents
can be considered true. Reached via e-mail, Stop19 said "Our
anonymity has no bearing on the facts." And "Just about every web
site on the Internet has a standard 'we don't make warranties on the
A recent Sacramento Bee/Field Poll indicated that the race for Prop
19 is close. While 47 percent of respondents want to regulate pot
like alcohol, 4 percent want to "legalize marijuana so it can be
purchased and used by anyone." Could that 4 percent be the swing vote
that sends Prop 19 down in defeat?
Soares says widespread support from all mainstream reformers like
NORML and even groups like the NAACP and various California unions
may neutralize the far lefts. "That has to help," she said.
Dragonfly de la Luz hopes Prop 19 loses, and says the mainstream drug
law reformers are locked in groupthink and gripped by fear. "They
feel that now that the momentum is building we can't go against it
now because it would hurt the movement in some way or fragment the
movement," she said. "I'm hopeful that it doesn't win and it's not
that I'm anti-legalization. Obviously I'm pro-legalization, but
apparently being pro-legalization and being pro-Prop 19 are two
different things entirely."
NORML's Gieringer the group that coined the phrase "Stoners Against
Legalization" said there's always been a fringe community of
stoners who vote against reform measures. "Every vote counts, but
we're talking about a minority of a minority," he said. "People
currently using marijuana are voting 85 percent for Prop 19."
The fringe won't matter as much in the Prop 19 race as Republican
gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman's massive, multimillion-dollar
get-out-the-vote campaign this fall, says Gieringer.
Whether or not Prop 19 wins or loses, Lee has said his main goal was
to get the discussion going on legalization. It's clear that quite a
bit of discussion crazy and sane is taking place. From that
perspective, Soares says Lee has already won.
"Oh absolutely," she said. "I think the best part of Prop 19 and one
of the benefits I see is that it's getting national coverage. Glenn
Beck is talking about it. If you can get him to say crazy stuff about
anything you've done well."