By JESSE McKINLEY
Published: October 30, 2010
OAKLAND, Calif. It is the home stretch in the battle over
Proposition 19, the ballot initiative that would legalize and
regulate marijuana in California, and at "Yes" headquarters in
downtown Oakland last week, young volunteers were hustling for votes.
But while the setting was laid back what with the couches, the
Frisbees on the walls and the ample snacks the mood was anything
but, as a computerized system dialing potential voters kept phones
"This is one of our generation's most important issues," said Evan
Nison, a junior from Ithaca College in New York who has spent the
last five months helping to coordinate the campaign on 40 campuses
statewide. "Students are going to be the deciding factor, and I'm in
charge of colleges. Talk about stress."
On the "No" side, opponents are at a financial disadvantage but have
been using deep political muscle to spread their message, including
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, and Senator Dianne
Feinstein, a Democrat who joined a statewide tour in Los Angeles on
Friday. They have also been hammering the proposition on the radio,
saying it will endanger children and short-circuit federal school
financing and painting its backers as under the influence.
"Wow," a new advertisement concludes. "Maybe the proponents should
have waited to celebrate until after they'd written the legal language."
Still, with a growing number of Americans favoring legalization a
Gallup poll released last week found a record high 46 percent
approving of legalizing marijuana perhaps no ballot measure in the
country will be more closely watched on Tuesday.
And while some polls here show the "yes" side on Proposition 19
trailing, even a close loss could have national impact, as groups
seeking to change drug laws watch the results and consider backing
legalization measures in other states.
"Win or lose, this thing has moved the ball much further down the
field than anyone could have imagined," said Ethan Nadelmann, the
executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, which supports
Proposition 19. "It's transformed the debate not only in California,
but nationally and internationally."
Even opponents concede that their efforts to stop the measure do not
necessarily mean that legalization is deeply unpopular, just that it
is a bad idea to pass Proposition 19, which would allow anyone over
21 to possess and cultivate small amounts of marijuana but would
leave many of the details concerning the sale, production and
taxation to local governments.
"We have members of the coalition who are opposed to legalization of
any kind, and we have members who say, 'We could see it,' " said
Roger Salazar, a spokesman and strategist for the opponents. "But the
hodge-podge of 'let's legalize use throughout the state, and then
figure out if we want to legalize its sale, or tax it' it doesn't
seem to work for a lot of folks."
Backers of the measure have spent more than $2 million getting it on
the ballot and campaigning for its passage, an effort that has been
assisted in recent weeks by several large donations, including $1
million from the billionaire George Soros. That late influx of cash
has helped pay for a spate of advertisements.
The opposition campaign run by a pair of experienced political
consulting firms based in Sacramento says it has raised only about
$350,000 in donations. But they have found substantial support from
well-connected, well-organized groups like the California Police
Chiefs Association and the California Chamber of Commerce.
Not that many donors on both sides were initially interested in
giving money to an initiative that was seen as a long shot.
"It wasn't even on their radar screen," said Tim Rosales, the "No on
19" campaign manager.
Mr. Nadelmann concurred, saying many big pro-legalization donors,
like Mr. Soros, did not start to consider giving money until it
became apparent that the measure had a fighting chance.
"They didn't quite believe that the polling would hold up as well it
did," Mr. Nadelmann said.
While the "No" campaign has been bare-bones no phone banks, no
direct mail it has used big names and some shocking images to get
attention. The Web site for "No on 19," for example, depicts a
crumpled car and an overturned school bus and warns that
"recreational marijuana use in fatal crashes will increase if
Proposition 19 passes."
"It will be legal for a driver to get high right before taking the
wheel," it says.
Mrs. Feinstein echoed those themes in her appearance in Los Angeles
on Friday, saying Proposition 19 would not increase tax revenue for
the state and would not curb violence of drug cartels, both arguments
that proponents have made in its favor.
"These, I believe, are false promises," she said.
California was the first state to legalize medical marijuana in 1996
and would be the first state to legalize recreational use. But this
month, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said the federal
government would vigorously pursue criminal prosecutions of those who
possess, manufacture or distribute the drug, regardless of
Proposition 19's outcome.
Despite uncertainty, strategists for Proposition 19 say they have a
number of factors in their favor, including the enthusiasm from young
voters, a large get-out-the-vote effort and what they call a "great
silent majority" who approve of legalization.
"Voters have increasingly become angrier and angrier at the
establishment," said Chris Lehane, a longtime Democratic strategist
who is working for Proposition 19. "And this is the most
anti-establishment initiative in the land this cycle."
Much of the ground game for Proposition 19 is centered in Oakland,
where the measure's co-sponsor, Richard Lee, has built his marijuana
trade school Oaksterdam into a small empire, with a three-story
headquarters in the downtown core. Mr. Lee, a former roadie who
founded Oaksterdam in 2007, says he expects the vote to be close, and
"I think we've made the issue a lot more legitimate," he said, adding
that he suspected several others states would consider votes on
legalization in 2012, including Michigan, where Oaksterdam has a
And while Mr. Lee's investment has been serious about $1.4 million
the tone of the campaign has sometimes been looser.
At campaign headquarters in Oakland last week, volunteers worked the
phones and their laptops, some dressed in sweat pants and others
wearing flip-flops. "Yes on 19" pickets lay about, and a collection
of "Yes on 19" Frisbees hung on the wall. In the back, a "war room"
had been set up, with a white board counting down the days to Nov. 2.
One volunteer, Doug Greene, said he had flown to California from Long
Island because he "wanted to be part of history."
"If it passes here, the whole map is changed," said Mr. Greene, a
legalization advocate. "And even if we don't win, we've had a
discussion that most didn't think possible."