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 dreadlocked stoners."
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.