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Will California Legalize Pot?

With only a few months to go until the election, the campaign to legalize marijuana in California has only $50,000 in cash on hand. The question now is: How can it win?

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"There is no template available that shows what you need to do to achieve victory," says Paul Armentano, deputy director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. 

Where Prop. 19 stands today

For the past few months since qualifying for the ballot, Prop. 19 has focused on building up its online support, fund-raising, staffing the Oakland office, building a coalition, and setting up a network of volunteers throughout the state who will soon power the ground force. Over this time, the mainstream media's coverage of the campaign has mostly focused on poll numbers.

Polls in April and May found support at  56 percent and 51 percent, respectively. A SurveyUSA poll released this month shows support at  50 percent, 10 points over those against it. A new Public Policy Polling poll found the divide to be even greater, with  52 percent supporting and 36 percent nixing it -- and the campaign says these results are more consistent with its internal polling. But another poll also released this month, the  Field poll, showed that more people oppose the initiative than support it, at 48 to 44 percent. (This contrasts with the  last Field poll, conducted over a year ago, which found support at 56 percent.) No matter which numbers you're looking at though, 50, 52 or even 56 percent isn't all that comforting. It's one thing to say yes to a pollster, it's quite another thing to get out and vote that way.  

"Progressive drug reform on the California ballot needs to be polling in the high 50s or low 60s," says Stephen Gutwillig, the California director at the Drug Policy Alliance. "This is because they generally have nowhere to go but down because of the fear-mongering that usually occurs at the hands of the law enforcement lobby which tends to not need as much money to push their regressive fear-based messages."

Mauricio Garzon, the even-tempered campaign coordinator, admits polls could be better but is sure that something even more important is happening. "We're seeing a legitimization of this issue, politically. There was a time when this was impossible," he says. "You reflect on this and you see a shift in public sentiment and this is what this campaign has always been about. Making Americans understand how important this issue is. It's a real issue and the existing framework has been devastating to our society."

Indeed, Tax Cannabis has always been framed as a public education campaign. In this sense, at least, Prop. 19 is really succeeding -- after all, a lot of people are talking about it.

Prop. 19's newly hired field director, James Rigdon, thinks marijuana legalization has a lot more going for it than other issues. "There's something appealing about this for everyone -- helping the economy, incarceration issues, personal freedom ideas, public safety concerns. People from all walks are willing to come out and support us," Rigdon tells me. "Our supporters aren't just Cheech and Chong. They're everyday people who support this because it's good for everybody."

The multi-layered appeal to ending marijuana prohibition even has some expert election observers  believing that ballot initiatives legalizing cannabis may be the Democrats' answer to the gay marriage bans that drive Republican voters to the polling places. That theory remains to be tested in November, but what is certain now is that the far-reaching benefits that come with legalizing the marijuana industry in California have attracted a broad coalition of supporters of all stripes.

In addition to all the major players in the drug reform community, groups ranging from the NAACP to the ACLU have also signed up as  official endorsers of Prop. 19. So, too, have numerous labor unions, faith leaders, law enforcement officers, elected officials, and doctors and physicians. According to Gutwillig, a coalition of organized labor, civil rights organizations, and the drug policy reform movement "has not existed before and could be game-changing."