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The Prop. 19 Battle Lines Are Drawn: Will Californians Make the Right Decision and Vote to Legalize Pot?

Prop. 19 would make California the first state to legalize marijuana.
 
 
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With election day now less than a month away, California's Proposition 19 tax and regulate marijuana legalization initiative is leading in most polls (although a Monday Reuters/Ipsos poll showing it losing by nine points sent a chill down the spines of supporters) and is well-positioned to make California the first entity anywhere to legalize marijuana. But what happens in the next 27 days is crucial, as proponents and opponents alike seek to come up with the votes to prevail.

The battle lines are drawn.

Lining up in support of Prop 19 are dozens of (mostly) retired law enforcement figures, including former San Jose Police Chief Joe McNamara and former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper, as well as Law Enforcement Against Prohibition and the National Black Police Association; four California US congressmen; dozens of state and local elected officials; local ACLU chapters; the California NAACP; the California Libertarian Party, the California Green Party; the California Young Democrats and many local Democratic groups; the Republican Liberty Caucus; organized labor groups, including the SEIU of California, the Western States UFCW, the longshoremen, and various union locals; clergy, including the California Council of Churches IMPACT and the Interfaith Drug Policy Initiative; economist Dr. Jeffrey Miron; and a number of physicians, including former US Surgeon General Joyce Elders. California's burgeoning professional cannabis community has moved Prop 19 forward, with supporters including the Harborside Health Center, the Berkeley Patients Group, and the initiative's primary sponsor, Oaksterdam's Richard Lee.

On the other side
are the usual suspects: The California Narcotics Officers' Association, the California Association of Highway Patrolmen, the California Police Chiefs Association, the California Correctional Supervisors Organization, the California Peace Officers Association, the California District Attorney Association, and local police associations. They are joined by all federal drug czars past and present, past and present DEA administrators, both California US senators and most of the congressional delegation, most newspaper editorial boards, the California Chamber of Commerce, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the California Beer and Beverage Distributors (who chipped in $10,000 to

Public Safety First, a political action committee created to oppose Prop 19), Californians for a Drug-Free Youth, DARE America, and other anti-drug organizations.

But given marijuana's increasing popular acceptance, legalization foes aren't getting much traction anymore with "marijuana is the devil's drug" messages. Instead, they are forced into tangential attacks: Prop 19 will lead to more drugged driving; it will lead to workers high on the job, they say. It won't earn tax revenues because everyone will grow his own. It will create a "regulatory nightmare." Jacob Sullum at Reason magazineand veteran expert activist and Prop 19 steering committee member Chris Conrad's Prop 19 Fact Check and RumorControl web page both do a thorough job of debunking those claims.

The opposition so far has been relatively low profile -- because it doesn't have any money. According to campaign contribution data at the California Secretary of State's office, Public Safety First has only managed to raise $178,000 to oppose Prop 19 this year, and more significantly, only has $54,000 in the bank right now. That's not enough to bankroll any kind of media campaign in the nation's most populous state.

That's a change from the past, when foes of drug reform initiatives could count on big money from special interests, as was the case in 2008, when a sentencing reform initiative that appeared headed for victory went down in flames after a big injection of funds from the powerful and wealthy prison guards' union. This year, the prison guards and their pile of cash are sitting it out.

The Prop 19 campaign fervently hopes they continue to do just that. Its worst fear at this point is a last-minute negative advertising blitz, and there is still time for that to happen. That's because, like the opposition, Prop 19 is essentially broke. Although it has raised more than $700,000 this year, it only has $67,000 in the bank. An independent pro-Prop 19 group,

Students for Sensible Drug Policy(SSDP), has another $100,000 in the bank, thanks to surprise donations from Dr. Bronner's Magic Soapsand the DC-area store Capitol Hemp. SSDP is spending the money between now and Election Day on a Yes We Cannabis Fire Truck Tour doing voter registration and get-out-the-vote work on California campuses.

For the opposition, the lack of cash means it has to work to try to get its message out. Aside from the former drug czars coming out against the measure, a handful of debates, the penning of some op-eds, and a presence on the web, People First hasn't done much. It has held a handful of lackluster press conferences, which have generated some coverage, and spokesmen are always willing to give good quote when reporters call, but so far, that's about it.

Other than for the lack of cash, opposition from the usual suspects is pretty much as expected. What is surprising is the emergence of a vocal anti-Prop 19 movement with the marijuana community.  From cannabis connoisseur Dragonfly de la Luz and her

Stoners Against Prop 19to Vote No on Prop 19, with its warning of a "Prop 19 cartel," to medical marijuana dispensary operators like HopeNet, the Green Door, and the California Cannabis Association, a fifth column within the marijuana movement is seeking to defeat Prop 19.

Their arguments, which can be read on their web sites, are varied, but boil down to a couple of main claims: that passage of Prop 19 will somehow hurt medical marijuana patients or dispensaries, and that Prop 19 is "not legalization" because it sets possession limits and allows for taxation and regulation of cultivation and distribution. There is an additional fillip of conspiracy-tinged fears that Prop 19 will lead to a corporate takeover of the pot industry. Left unspoken is the economic self-interest of growers and dispensary operators.

Those arguments have been heartily answered in detail by, among others, Chris Conrad (here), national NORML outreach director Russ Bellville (here.) Those readers interested in the battle over clauses, intentions, and meanings can compare the two sets of sites and decide for themselves.

"They have said nothing we have not been able to disprove," said Conrad, "but it doesn't matter because they're not reality-based. They're like our own little Tea Party, with a politics of fear and conspiracy stuff, tangents about corporate takeovers, and libertarian anti-tax and anti-regulation notions."

"We want parity and equality, and that means if you sell something, you have to pay taxes," said Mikki Norris, Conrad's long-time partner in life and activism. "The anti-tax thing has inserted itself into every movement, including this one."

Tensions boiled over during a debate last weekend at the Cow Palace in San Francisco during the International Cannabis and Hemp Expo, a pot industry trade show. Medical marijuana entrepreneur Richard Lee, the primary motivating force behind Prop 19, was subjected to loud heckling and shouting as he attempted to explain why pot people should vote for the initiative. A disgusted Lee finally rolled away in his wheelchair, leaving Conrad to carry on.

Nevertheless, Conrad sees the "Stoners Against Prop 19" types more as a distraction than as serious opposition. "I don't think they're that important, really," he said. "We have some serious opposition, and we're waiting for those ads to come out, we're waiting for the school bus full of children with the stoned driver. We're more worried about that kind of opposition in the works than we are by these people."

For Dale Gieringer, long-time head of California NORML, opposition to Prop 19 inside the marijuana community is overstated, but could impact the election result in a tight race. "It's a tempest in a teapot, a minority of a minority," said Geiringer. "But this looks like it's going to be a very close election, so it's possible they could affect the outcome.

Despite the heated rhetoric and venom on display in recent weeks, both sides should treat each other with respect, he said. "There are too many people casting aspersions about others' intentions in this," Gieringer said. "There are good people on both sides of Prop 19. There are some very dedicated supporters of legal marijuana who simply do not like the wording of Prop 19 for one reason or another."

But not voting for Prop 19 is the wrong choice, said Gieringer. "Some will conscientiously not vote for something that's not to their taste, but I don't think that's a wise thing to do in a close election. This election is about do you favor legal marijuana or not, and all the other concerns can be adjusted afterward," he said.

"They don't want to pay taxes, they're afraid it opens things up to big business," said Gieringer. "Others think it doesn't go far enough, and there are medical marijuana people who are afraid this will somehow infringe on patients' rights under Prop 215 and Senate Bill 420. I don't agree with that analysis."

Neither does Americans for Safe Access(ASA), the country's largest medical marijuana defense group, and one deeply rooted in the California medical marijuana scene. As a group concentrating on medical marijuana, ASA is neutral on Prop 19, but, in response to numerous questions from members and other interested observers, ASA has created a Prop 19 FAQ on its web site.

"Does Prop 19 hurt patients?" was the question. "No. While it is possible there will be unanticipated consequences and legal controversy, nothing in the text of Proposition 19 is designed to deny any rights to medical cannabis patients," was ASA's answer

"Does Prop 19 overrule the medical marijuana laws of California?" was the question. "No. Proposition 19 is designed to, among other things, '[p]rovide easier, safer access for patients who need cannabis for medical purposes.' Although a statement of purpose is not necessarily controlling, courts generally look to it in interpreting the statute's language. The purpose of Proposition 19 is not to overturn Proposition 215 or any other state or local medical cannabis law," was ASA's answer.

"Will Prop 19 allow localities to ban medical marijuana dispensaries?" was the question. "Unclear. Currently, there is no legal authority stating that localities must regulate dispensaries under Proposition 215 and SB 420. Proposition 19 allows for local regulation of medical cannabis sales, but also allows localities to ban such activity. If Proposition 19 is adopted, it is unclear how the courts will integrate both laws with respect to dispensaries," was ASA's answer.

It is worth noting that many California communities already ban dispensaries. Other, more medical marijuana friendly, locales regulate and tax them.

"People are concerned when voters are considering something so similar to a right already afforded them and that a new law might somehow restrict those rights," said ASA spokesman Kris Hermes. "There are many questions unanswered, especially around the issue of distribution. We're fighting right now to prevent local governments from adopting bans against distribution. Given that Prop 19 allows for wet and dry localities, and because we haven't completely ironed out the issue of whether local governments can ban medical marijuana distribution, this could infringe on those rights, especially if courts side with law enforcement against having a patchwork of different rules for different counties," Hermes said.

"There are also entrepreneurs who see their business being threatened by a huge influx of legal marijuana," said Hermes. "For some people, there is definitely a financial interest at stake, but ASA doesn't feel that should be a reason to oppose the initiative."

"What's not so clear is whether local governments might not have more power to tax, regulate, and potentially ban medical marijuana collectives," said CANORML's Gieringer. "The initiative gives very strong authority to local governments to do such things. It's not clear what their authority is now. Many patients feel that, under current law, local governments have to accept collectives and maybe dispensaries. My reading is that that is not required by Prop 215, but might arguably be required by SB 420. But SB 420 is a statute and can be changed by the legislature at any time. I wouldn’t be surprised if they start tinkering around next year regardless of Prop 19. But the stronger the vote Prop 19 gets, the stronger the position of both patients and other users next year."

On November 3, regardless of the intricacies of the arguments over Prop 19, the rest of the world is going to wake up to a headline from California. Is it going to be "California Legalizes Marijuana" or is it going to be "California Rejects Marijuana Legalization?" California voters have 27 days to decide.

Read more of Phillip S. Smith's work at the Drug War Chronicle.
 
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