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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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As the coalition of Prop. 19 supporters grows, so does the mainstream media's coverage. Gutwillig believes Prop. 19 has done a "really good job of defining the way the media is covering it; coming up with new and interesting ways of talking about the issue. They are talking about the failures of prohibition without seeming to encourage greater consumption of marijuana. And the argument that is increasingly made is that this is not playing out as criminal justice reform, that this is playing out as a social or cultural or economic issue. The framing is different."

Here Gutwillig is referring to the last statewide drug initiative -- Prop. 5 in 2008. That failed measure was framed as a criminal justice issue and sought to emphasize treatment and rehabilitation for drug offenders over harsh criminal consequences. So the Prop. 19 campaign's hope may be to learn from the lesson of Prop. 5 and skew away from criminal justice arguments. But there could be a downside to this approach. 

"Prop. 19 is talking about this as more of a jobs, revenue issue, which plays well for the mainstream media which likes to play up the fiscal side of it because it ties into larger stories, but a more sinister interpretation may be that it allows the media to talk about marijuana reform without talking about marijuana reform," Gutwillig says. 

This is tied to another worry Gutwillig observes. "The research and focus groups I've seen see the whole revenue thing as gravy -- it matters to people who've already made up their minds about supporting Prop. 19. But it's not the reason someone is going to come off the fence. [Talking about revenue] doesn't resonate with voters, nor should it," he says. "But what does resonate is the other side of the fiscal coin, which is the opportunity to save and redirect scarce law enforcement resources. That message makes a big difference. People's instincts tell them there is something fundamentally hypocritical about marijuana prohibition."

Prop. 19 hopes to appeal to the instincts of Californians who believe the drug war has failed.

The campaign's strategy

As Prop. 19 prepares to fan out across California, it has set two very important, realistic goals. The first is that it will not try to change the minds of those who believe marijuana prohibition has been a success. This means that the campaign is out to mobilize those who already support Prop. 19, and make sure they show up to vote; it also means they will focus on convincing those who have some sense that criminalizing pot has done more harm than good that this measure is the right solution to this policy problem. The campaign expects the swing demographics to be comprised mostly of blacks, Latinos, mothers, and young people.

In its second key strategic move, the campaign will especially focus on the largest areas of voters most likely to vote in midterm elections -- Los Angeles County, Orange County, the Bay Area, the Inland Empire, and the Central Valley -- rather than spread itself too thin across the entire state.

As the campaign prepares to begin its on-the-ground outreach over these next few weeks, the question of financing arises. After all, big dollars are behind most successful campaigns.

While Tax Cannabis premiered with a lot of fanfare about its financial backing, the situation is somewhat different now. Richard Lee, the pot entrepreneur and co-proponent of the initiative, injected $1.4 million of his money -- via Oaksterdam University -- to ensure its passage. While fund-raising has continued at a steady clip, the  latest public filings show that most of the larger cash infusions still come from S.K. Seymour, LLC, Lee's umbrella organization that runs Oaksterdam and other cannabis-related businesses. Despite this, Prop. 19 is committed to raising small amounts from many people, and the filings show many small-dollar donations have started to flow in. According to Lee, the campaign has raised $130,000 online and most of these donations were under $250.