Drugs

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?

Today, at least a third of Americans say they've tried smoking weed. Is it possible that after half a century of increasingly mainstreamed pot use the public is ready for marijuana to be legal? We may soon find out.

California has long been on the front lines of marijuana policy. In 1996, it became the first state to legalize medical cannabis. This year, the Tax Cannabis initiative -- now officially baptized Proposition 19 -- may very well be the best chance any state has ever had at legalizing the consumption, possession and cultivation of marijuana for anyone over 21.

Drug reformers are particularly excited about Prop. 19's prospects because the pot reform stars seem to be as aligned as ever here. Consider the current state of marijuana in California. For one, medical cannabis has normalized the idea of pot as a legitimate industry to many of the state's residents. At least 300,000 and as many as 400,000 Californians are card-carrying medical marijuana patients, and the medical pot industry brings in around $100 million in sales tax revenue each year, according to Americans for Safe Access.

Add to this the fact that at least 3.3 million Californians consume cannabis each year, a figure culled from a presumably low-ball federal estimate, meaning the actual incidence rate may be much higher. In other words, at least one in 10 Californians uses pot every year. Plus, 38 percent of Californians say they have tried pot at least once in their lifetimes.

Next, tie the widespread use of this mild substance -- which has proven to be less harmful than alcohol and cigarettes -- to the growing slice of law enforcement resources that are dedicated to fighting non-violent crimes associated with marijuana. Since 2005, marijuana arrests have increased nearly 30 percent, totaling 78,000 in 2008, according to figures from the state's Office of the Attorney General. Of those arrests, four out of five were for simple possession. Not surprisingly, this overzealous drug war disproportionately affects minorities and young people.

All of this in the face of the state's massive debt -- $19 billion for the month-old fiscal year -- which is closing schools, laying off police officers, and shutting down key public services while cash-strapped taxpayers foot the bill for a failed, senseless drug policy. With little money in state and local municipalities' coffers, criminalizing marijuana seems a senseless waste of the state's largest cash crop. In all, marijuana prohibition is both an economic and a social issue -- and Prop. 19 hopes to convince California voters that Nov. 2 is the time to end it.

The midterm elections are just over three months away, and Prop. 19 is seen by many observers as one of the ballot items most likely to galvanize voters. As the people behind Prop. 19 prepare to launch their ground campaign in earnest, it's clear the initiative will be under a magnifying glass every step of the way.

The question on everyone's mind is: How do they win? 

The reality of the matter is that Prop. 19 has the deck stacked against it simply because there is no precedent for a voting public of a state to endorse removing all civil and criminal penalties associated with adult marijuana use. All preceding efforts have met sad ends: A 1972 measure also called Prop. 19 failed in California; more recently, attempts in Alaska, Colorado and Nevada were also rejected. In the face of decades of federal and state prohibition, it is still much easier to vote no than yes, even in the face of convincing arguments to do otherwise.

"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."

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.

Yet Lee admits that "everything is on track, except fund-raising." The campaign currently has $50,000 in cash. While the campaign has talked to the major funders of other marijuana measures throughout the country -- people like Peter Louis, George Soros, Bob Wilson, and John Sperling -- none have committed funding yet. All of these men contributed between $1 million and $2 million each to Prop. 5, the failed 2008 measure that sought to reform sentencing for drug-related offenses. A big question remains unanswered: Why are these Prop. 5 donors not funding Prop. 19?

Their non-involvement may be why Garzon says the campaign "can certainly do a lot with a little." Prop. 19 has not yet planned for a mass media campaign, which costs a lot of money. For example, a statewide TV ad buy for a political candidate in California costs about $1 million per week. That's a daunting figure and so Tax Cannabis will instead be stressing one-to-one public education, which will take the form of door-to-door canvassing, phone banks and town-hall meetings. 

"We don't think we need [a mass media campaign] to win. It depends on our budget -- if we have room for it, we will," Garzon says. "People are interested enough that we find the person-to-person interaction to be very successful. When you answer their questions, they're very supportive."

The Prop. 19 campaign will rely heavily on volunteers. Though the campaign hasn't yet put out an official appeal, 2,600 people have already signed on. Many thousands more are expected to comprise the complete army of volunteers, who will have to learn how to craft talking points that appeal to different kinds of on-the-fence Californians. 

Already the campaign has some idea of what those talking points will be. A town-hall meeting in Mendocino County gave Garzon an opportunity to see what resonated with voters there. The event was billed as "Life After Legalization," and speakers framed the passing of Prop. 19 as an opportunity to become "the Napa Valley of cannabis," Garzon said. By the end of the meeting, a union man had inspired attendees to chant, "Organize! Organize!"

For Jerome Urías-Cantú, a law student at Stanford, the key issue is border safety. In a fund-raising appeal sent out to Prop. 19's mailing list, he wrote about a cousin who lived in Ciudad Juárez, just miles from the California border, who was killed in the escalating drug war in Mexico. "Oscar had nothing to do with the drug trade, but he was shot and killed nonetheless," Urías-Cantú wrote. "That's why I support the reform of California's cannabis laws. The measure will prevent needless deaths by reducing the profitability of the drug trade and putting the violent drug cartels out of business." (The Office of National Drug Control Policy estimates that Mexican cartels receive 60 percent of their revenue from marijuana sales in the United States.)

Lance Rogers, a volunteer regional director based in San Diego, believes that besides the border issues, people in his area will be interested in economic arguments for Prop. 19. "San Diego -- like the state -- is in a major fiscal crisis. We have an extreme budget deficit due to pension problems," he says.

And as a criminal defense attorney, Rogers has met others like him who "see the effects of an overly punitive criminal justice system on marijuana offenses. I see people go to prison for five or seven years for sales of less than an ounce of marijuana. Granted, these are folks who have prior felonies or other things going on, but the fact is that this person is going to prison for $75,000 a year for doing what Prop. 19 would legalize."

Priscilla A. Pyrk, the regional director for the Inland Empire and the owner of a medical marijuana collective, thinks dispelling stereotypes about cannabis consumers and entrepreneurs will be important, too. "The cannabis industry needs to revamp how people perceive this industry and its users," Pyrk says. "That's why it's great that we have a lot of non-traditional cannabis consumers coming on board. They're coming out of the closet! Doctors, lawyers, businessmen are coming out and standing up for the initiative."

Women, who were key in the effort to legalize medical cannabis and have more generally helped mainstream pot use, will also be targeted. According to Richard Lee, soccer moms in particular are a big undecided group. "We have to educate them about how Prop. 19 will protect their kids better than the status quo," he says. "The current system draws kids into selling and buying cannabis. If alcohol was illegal, it'd be the same way. There is a forbidden fruit attraction."

Stephen Gutwillig agrees: "The campaign must validate moms' instinct that there is something whack about marijuana prohibition. The instinct that marijuana is more like tobacco and alcohol than not, and safer -- which it is -- and that there's no reason that we shouldn't be trying to regulate marijuana. They know we're wasting a lot of law enforcement resources on this futile attempt to enforce these unenforceable laws."

As Prop. 19 works on the ground, it will count on the field support of three organizations. One is NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws; the second is the Courage Campaign, a progressive advocacy group with 800,000 members. Arisha Hatch, the national field director at Courage, estimates that about 500 to 1,000 of its volunteers will be highly involved with the Prop. 19 campaign's get-out-the-vote work, which she sees as "the biggest challenge [Prop. 19] will face. We need to get people to actually speak on message and in a responsible way about what taxing and regulating cannabis will be like.

"Marijuana legalization is the only thing on the ballot that can replicate that turnout. I see it as an extremely important issue for progressives, which is why Courage has made it the initiative we're supporting this cycle," Hatch says.

The final group supporting Prop. 19 on the ground is Students for Sensible Drug Policy, which will manage the campus outreach and focus on bringing out the youth vote.

Aaron Houston, the executive director of SSDP, says he is committed to proving the conventional wisdom about youth voters and midterm elections wrong: "What we're going to change with this election is demonstrate that marijuana on the ballot motivates young people to turn out and vote. Opportunistic politicians will find out that marijuana increases youth turnout and that speaking out against drug reform is to their peril."

Scoping out the opposition

Prop. 19's most vocal opposition comes from the top. Gubernatorial candidates Meg Whitman and Jerry Brown don't see eye to eye on much, but they both seem to have decided it's politically expedient to oppose the measure. Senator Dianne Feinstein also recently came out against it.

"I was at a party with doctors who said they used to light up with Jerry Brown," says Garzon. "But you know, the reality is that we know that politicians aren't going to lead on this issue."

Feinstein, for her part, refers to a Rand study released this month to justify the idea that "if Proposition 19 passes, the only thing that would be certain is drug use would go up and the state of California would run afoul of federal law and risk losing federal funding."

But if you read the actual study, you learn that Rand is still rather conservative in its ability to prognosticate much: "The proposed legislation in California would create a large change in policy. As a result it is uncertain how useful these studies are for making projections about marijuana legalization."

Yet even a rather staid study like Rand still sees positives such as tax revenues, which the state has projected could be as high as $1.4 billion annually. As for Feinstein's claim, there is no reason to believe Prop. 5 would affect federal funding (which Feinstein will fight for anyway). As Richard Lee says, similar arguments were used against Prop. 215 but the medical marijuana measure has not resulted in less funding coming to California. And regarding the senator's assertion that drug use will go up, the opposite may be true. Other studies show that marijuana use among youth has actually dropped since medical marijuana was legalized in California. There was a 47 percent decline among the state's ninth-graders from 1996 to 2006.

"Sen. Feinstein opposed Prop. 215 although she has now come out in favor of medical marijuana. It's political math," Lee says. "With Prop. 215, all the major politicians and statewide candidates were against it but it passed with 56 percent of the vote. So if you look at the polling, the voters don't trust politicians on this."

Currently, the No on Prop. 19 movement seems relegated to a few small groups. The most well-funded one is called Public Safety First, which claims endorsements from the California Chamber of Commerce, the California Police Chiefs Association and the California Narcotic Officers' Association. The group is headed by John Lovell, the lobbyist for the police and narcotic officers' unions. Public Safety First has under 250 fans on Facebook -- compared to the over 120,000 Prop. 19 has -- and James Rigdon, the Prop. 19 field director, says at least 20 of them are fans of Prop. 19, too. "Some of them even work here," he laughs.

A couple volunteer opposition groups have cropped up, too. Citizens Against Legalizing Marijuana seems to have little if any money behind it. Another such group, Nip It In The Bud, boasts little more than a Web site, which depicts a skeleton holding a scroll reading: "Fix California with pot??? NOT!"

Prop. 19 seems more concerned with opposition within the movement than without it. 

"From our own side there has been some fragmentation as there is in all social movements. There's just different people with different ideas," Garzon says. "We're open to criticism but we're trying to do things responsibly. We can't please everybody but we've tried to craft something that makes sense to a mother in Los Angeles, too. This isn't ultimately about the right to smoke, it's about taxes in our communities, a failed system, a public health issue."

I told Garzon that a few marijuana activists had written me to say they were upset about the local control aspect of Prop. 19 -- counties can decide whether to legalize the sale of cannabis. One had called the regulatory framework confusing and a bureaucratic disaster waiting to happen.

"We're not instituting a state government aspect, true. But it'll come down to who do you want to give your tax dollars to? Local control is what we need on so many issues but in particular this issue," he said. Local governments can decide "ideologically, culturally, operationally what is right for them. What it does is allows the best of the models to bubble up to the top.Local governments can decide not to pass it this year -- but those who don't pass on the opportunity will take advantage of that extra revenue."

Priscilla A. Pyrk, the Prop. 19 organizer in the Inland Empire, also hopes to assuage some opposition from within the medical cannabis community: "Prop. 19 does not have anything to do with the medical side of cannabis. Prop. 215 stays intact. This can help medical cannabis patients by alleviating any of the judgment that is currently focused on them."

Not much time left

How do they win? No one can say for sure, but the fund-raising strategy will be of paramount importance so the get-out-the-vote game can succeed. This midterm election cycle, the Prop. 19 campaign has to convince voters that marijuana prohibition hits on many important issues vital to their lives.

Going forward, the campaign will be heavily publicizing a recently released report from the non-partisan Legislative Analyst's Office which finds that Prop. 19 would put police priorities where they belong, generate hundreds of millions in revenue and protect the public.

The campaign needs to hammer in several points to stand a chance. Its messaging has to emphasize how marijuana prohibition has been a costly, senseless disaster. The drug war has strengthened and enriched violent cartels while law enforcement resources have been wasted on arresting non-violent marijuana users, ruining lives and siphoning from key public services that are sorely needed by all Californians. Prop. 19 must also make clear that taxing and regulating pot will make it harder for minors to access pot -- and that medical marijuana has proven that increased regulation decreases use by kids. Finally, the campaign ought to appeal to voters by reminding them that this initiative is their opportunity to take a stand where politicians have been reluctant to act. In other words, the time is now.

If the campaign is successful, Californians will wake up on Nov. 3 to find that marijuana prohibition is finally over. If it isn't, at least we will be a step closer to that possibility.

Daniela Perdomo is a staff writer and editor at AlterNet. Follow Daniela on Twitter. Write her at danielaalternet [at] gmail [dot] com.