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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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There are two big unknown factors that could change the equation at any time, though, and may have already begun to. Activists foresee a domino effect from legalization in Colorado and Washington that will move voter sentiment quickly. The fact that two states in the most powerful country on the planet legalized pot has taken the giggles out of the discussion. "This is truly unprecedented in modern history," said Kilmer of RAND.

The results of the Quinnipiac poll show that activists appear to be right and that American attitudes are changing rapidly. That seems to be true even among law enforcement officials. Earlier this month, the chief of the Indiana State Police went on a local radio show and endorsed legalization — an unprecedented move for a top cop in the Midwest. "I grew up in Indiana," said Reiman. "No one was more surprised than me to hear that statement."

"It's a huge deal," added Isaac Campos, a marijuana prohibition historian at the University of Cincinnati. "It may even prove to be the most important event of November 6. It's a monumental, watershed moment."

History, in fact, is replete with examples of political tipping points — moments in time when large numbers of people change their minds about a controversial issue. In addition to marijuana legalization, same-sex marriage appears to be at a political tipping point, too. In 2008, a Quinnipiac poll showed that Americans opposed gay marriage, 55 percent to 36 percent. But in just four years, the country's mood has shifted dramatically. Now, 48 percent of Americans support same-sex marriage, compared to 46 percent who oppose it. That's a seventeen-point swing.

"When these social issues begin to change and the public begins to view them a little different, the numbers can tumble pretty radically," said Zimmerman. "I think we've seen that on gay marriage as well as on gay rights — the numbers on those two issues moved very dramatically in a very short time."

That's good news for civil rights activists, the LGBT community, and pot reformers. "Think we've hit the tipping point," Reiman said of the public's attitude on marijuana. "It's a fantastic public policy experiment. There could be actual benefits, not just about these horrible things not happening, but good things could come out of this."

Some pundits have credited President Obama's decision earlier this year to come out in support of same-sex marriage for helping turn the tide on that issue. Conversely, if his administration embarks on a federal campaign to punish Washington and Colorado for legalizing pot, it could have a chilling effect on reform efforts.

While the federal government cannot stop states from repealing drug laws, it could sue to try to block the implementation of regulations in Colorado and Washington. The feds could also attempt to withhold federal transportation funds, or other retaliatory moves.

US Attorney General Eric Holder may have singlehandedly defeated Proposition 19 when he flew into Los Angeles for a pre-election press conference and blasted the initiative. Federal tolerance of state legalization also could threaten US treaties with Latin American countries that fight our drug war, Campos noted.

Former DEA head Peter Bensinger is trying to mobilize retired DEA agents and narcotics officers to lobby the Obama administration for a crackdown, according to correspondence that I obtained. In one email dated November 15, Bensinger urged the Association of Former Federal Narcotics Agents (AFFNA) to take action. "We want to make it easy for all of you to help us put pressure on the Administration to step in and stop Colorado and Washington from implementing the legalization of marijuana," he wrote. "We need to push back.

 
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