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Is it California's Turn to Legalize Marijuana?

Now that Colorado and Washington have done it, California reformers are eyeing 2014 or 2016 for another ballot initiative -- but their optimism is laced with caution.
 
 
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When news broke on the evening of November 6 that Colorado had become the first state to legalize cannabis for adults 21 and older, patrons at the trendy Casselman's Bar & Venue in Denver erupted in cheers before they hugged each other and cried. Onstage, organizers and friends of the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol thanked those who had gathered — the elderly African-American ladies, the young hipsters, the business execs. There were far more people in suits, however, than in tie-dye in attendance that night, and there was nary a hint of ganja smoke in the hip establishment.

Pragmatism trumped counter-cultural rebellion again a few hours later in Seattle's Hotel Ändra, where travel writer Rick Steves joined business leaders and members of the ACLU, along with Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes, in thanking volunteers for making history in that state. Last week, Washington's Initiative 502 went into effect, and Colorado's Amendment 64 was implemented on Monday. Prosecutors in both states have already been dismissing simple possession cases by the thousands.

But cheers for Colorado and Washington on election night were accompanied by a bit of jealousy here in California, where voters narrowly defeated the pot legalization measure Proposition 19 in 2010. "A lot of people have said to me, 'How come we couldn't do that last election?'" remarked Stephen Downing, a retired Los Angeles Police Department deputy chief and a member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP).

The victories in Colorado and Washington have sparked more than just jealousy in the Golden State. Amanda Reiman, California policy manager for the Drug Policy Alliance, said a new legalization initiative is now on the tip of everyone's tongue in the California reform community. "This was something that we were talking about before the election," she said. "The results of the election have just ramped up those conversations, absolutely."

NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, has planned a conference on legalization for January 26 and 27 at Fort Mason in San Francisco. NORML, the Marijuana Policy Project, the Drug Policy Alliance, LEAP, Americans for Safe Access, the Emerald Growers Association, and the Oaksterdam community in Oakland, have been holding both public and private talks as well. "No question about it," said Bill Zimmerman, who helped run California's successful Proposition 215 medical marijuana initiative in 1996. "A lot of people in California are starting to talk about a future campaign — certainly the debate about 2014 versus 2016, all that's being engaged."

A new California legalization initiative also may not be the only one in the nation. Recent polls show that Americans are becoming increasingly comfortable with the idea of bringing pot out of the closet. A survey released last week from the respected polling organization Quinnipiac University showed that Americans now favor marijuana legalization 51 percent to 44 percent. It's a historic shift.

Americans also believe that states — not the federal government — should decide whether pot is legal. A Gallup poll released on December 10 revealed that 64 percent of Americans want to leave marijuana policy up to the states. "I would not be surprised to see [cannabis legalization] on the ballot in a number of places in 2014 and 2016," said Beau Kilmer, co-director of the Drug Policy Research Center at the nonpartisan think tank RAND.

But replicating Colorado and Washington's victories isn't a simple matter of copying and pasting initiatives, reform experts say. The victories in both states came from a decade of hard work that resulted in not only strong coalitions and palatable initiative language, but also campaigns run by professional operatives armed with cash.

 
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