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The Best Chance Yet for Legalizing Marijuana

Tax Cannabis 2010 faces hurdles as it prepares for its test on the California ballot next November.

It's Dec. 14 and news that the Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis Act of 2010 has qualified for the California ballot next year has just exploded in time for the evening news cycle. I am sitting on a sofa in a nearly empty room at Oaksterdam University, filing an update to my scoop for AlterNet and waiting for a chance to speak more at length with Richard Lee, the man behind the measure.

For the better part of an afternoon I've observed -- and waited for -- Lee and his staff as they ably handle a flurry of calls from the media before disappearing into a campaign strategy meeting. It's now dark out over downtown Oakland, as Oaksterdam students gather on the sidewalk after class.

The door opens and Lee parks his wheelchair, softly lands on the couch, and starts breaking up a bit of weed for a toke. After lucrative years in the advertising and marketing industry, he has reestablished himself as a pot entrepreneur and transformed a large sliver of downtown Oakland into Oaksterdam. As a major proponent of professionalizing the marijuana industry -- Oaksterdam University is probably his biggest project in this effort -- today is a big day for Lee. "It's not a petition anymore, it's an initiative," he says with a grin, as he lights his joint.

While the campaign won't submit the nearly 700,000 signatures it collected in two short months until February (and then must wait 90 days for official confirmation of their inclusion on the November ballot), the people behind Tax Cannabis are preparing to move onto the next stage. And they do so with a degree of fanfare. Last year brought an onslaught of positive coverage of marijuana by the mainstream media. Every outlet from Fortune to Newsweek, from Rachel Maddow to CBS Morning, has dedicated ink or airtime to the subject of cannabis reform, aiding in the normalization of the most commonly used, least toxic illicit substance in America.

This, in addition to the colossal budget crisis in California, has Lee convinced that 2010 may be the year for marijuana legalization. "Our initiative will catch up with the reality of what's already going on," he says. "There's a lot of variables out of our control -- say, what the economy does next year. But in general our theory is that the more people talk and think about the issue, the more we win them over."

Tax Cannabis is betting that the time is ripe for a public education campaign around ending marijuana prohibition, although the learning curve remains steep among some.

Later that night at the campaign's Broadway headquarters, I watch Dale Sky Clare, an administrator at Lee's Oaksterdam University, wrap up an interview with a local TV news affiliate.

Clare marvels at the reporter's remark that Tax Cannabis "looks like a real campaign."

Well, it is.

Dovetailing efforts

The winds of marijuana change are upon us. You can smell it -- literally and figuratively -- throughout California, where weed has been legalized for medical use since 1996. Proposition 215 succeeded due to the efforts of those who advocated the compassionate use of marijuana for patients with chronic diseases such as cancer and AIDS, but it's common knowledge that you can obtain medical marijuana for less serious afflictions like menstrual cramps, or in the case of a graduate-school student I know, thesis anxiety.

Because so many can and do consume marijuana legally, it's no wonder Lee believes his measure, which would tax and regulate marijuana for adults 21 and over, will merely be catching up to a reality already in place.