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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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Experts say California is a different beast entirely. Moreover, evidence has emerged that drug warriors are already lobbying the Obama administration to overturn the election outcomes in Colorado and Washington before states like California can legalize pot, too.

The Colorado victory may have blindsided the federal government, but the movement toward marijuana legalization had been building for a long time. "It took eight years, a couple million dollars, and some dedicated people," Mason Tvert, co-director of the Colorado campaign, told me.

Amendment 64 really started with the SAFER education campaign, which relentlessly hammered home the message that marijuana is safer than alcohol. Then in 2006, SAFER ran a statewide pot legalization initiative. Although it failed, the defeat taught the group some key lessons, including the importance of grassroots campaigning and building a solid political infrastructure.

Meanwhile, in Denver, state lawmakers were becoming leaders of the national medical marijuana movement. Coloradoans had legalized medical weed at the ballot box in 2000, but the medical pot industry's rapid and unchecked growth sparked intense criticism. The Colorado legislature responded by passing seed-to-sale regulations for the state in 2010.

The new rules are administered by the Colorado Department of Revenue, which quickly corralled the unbridled medical cannabis trade in 2011. Today, gun- and badge-carrying officers from the Medical Marijuana Enforcement Division regulate the industry, with pot cops monitoring grow rooms and club transactions via remote cameras linked to the Internet, while ensuring the collection of millions in tax revenue for the state.

Against this backdrop, in which the electorate not only had become aware that pot is safer than booze, but also realized that the state had a functioning system for controlling medical cannabis, marijuana law reformers decided to launch another initiative for 2012. The Marijuana Policy Project, a nationwide effort to decriminalize pot and keep users out of prison, provided 90 percent of the funding for the Amendment 64 campaign, Tvert said. The Drug Policy Alliance, another nationwide drug reform group, donated the other 10 percent. The highly professional campaign in Colorado conducted polling, drafted initiative language, and paid signature gatherers to get the necessary valid signatures to put Amendment 64 on the ballot. The campaign also worked closely with the Students for Sensible Drug Policy, LEAP, the ACLU of Colorado, and the NAACP of Colorado to mobilize thousands of volunteers to go door-to-door and staff phone banks.

Like those of Prop 19 in California, opponents of Amendment 64 spent less than half a million dollars, so the campaign was the reformers' to lose — and they didn't. Amendment 64's ads featured and targeted a key swing group: young moms. The Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol campaign didn't extol the virtues of pot; instead it talked about controlling the drug to keep it away from kids, and promised that the tax revenue from pot regulation would benefit schools. "I think folks in Colorado and Washington learned from California's experience," said Kilmer of RAND.

Colorado's electorate is one-third Democrat, one-third Republican, and one-third Independent, Tvert said, and the Amendment 64 campaign managed to garner support from all three political groups. Young liberals turned out in droves, not just to vote for legalization, but also for President Obama. Legalization polled extremely well with Colorado independents, and on the right, even the cantankerous former GOP Congressman Tom Tancredo campaigned for Amendment 64. "Whenever Tom Tancredo's on our list, it's going to be pretty broad," Tvert said of the coalition that supported the measure.

Colorado also is a traditional battleground state, and, as such, it could be a harbinger for the country. "Colorado is very much an indicator of where things stand nationwide," Tvert said.

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