The Big Successes Coming out of California's Legal Pot Campaign

I went to San Francisco with flowers in my hair. Well, not really; I actually flew into and stayed in Oakland, where the Yes on 19 campaign was headquartered. And the flowers weren't in my hair; they were in my suitcase. I was carrying just a few hits of overpriced New York Sour Diesel and some other strain to hold me over until I could make a Bay Area connection. Thankfully, those baggies survived TSA inspection.


Not that that would be an issue. I was going for there for a week, arriving the Wednesday before the first Tuesday of November, when the Golden State would vote on Proposition 19, an initiative to tax and regulate cannabis. I remembered attending an ARO (Alliance of Reform Organizations) dinner at last year's National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) conference in San Francisco, where movement leaders were cool at best to Oaksterdam University (OU) founder Richard Lee's proposed initiative, fearing the looseness of the language and an unfavorable midterm electorate (prescient on both counts). At the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP)'s 15th anniversary gala in Washington, DC in January, a prominent California medical marijuana attorney pithily described the initiative as "asinine."

But that was all in the haze of the past in September, when I made my plans to volunteer for the campaign. Of the three proposed marijuana reform initiatives in California, Tax and Regulate Cannabis 2010 was the only one to get on the ballot. NORML, MPP and DPA (Drug Policy Action, the 501(c)(4) affiliate of the Drug Policy Alliance, which spent more on the campaign than any other committee) had all swung into line. The campaign was being professionally managed. It had racked up an impressive list of endorsers (including the California NAACP, the California Service Employees International Union, the United Food and Commercial Workers, Western States Council and the Latino Voters League). And although no one had money for an expensive TV campaign, the initiative was leading in the polls by a few points, even if it remained persistently below 50 percent.

This was no pipe dream anymore. There was a real shot that California was going to legalize marijuana. I've spent over half of my life in the marijuana policy reform movement, and I was damned if I wasn't going to be there for it. I donated $520 to Yes on 19, but wanted to be on the ground for as much time as I could. Most of all, I wanted to be at the election night party inside OU.

I considered going to San Diego or L.A., but I would have gone anywhere in California the Yes on 19 field staff asked me to. Several factors swayed me to the Bay -- the Yes on 19 campaign was based there, I wouldn't have to travel to the Election Night party at OU, there was plenty of amazing vegan food to stuff into my rapacious maw, and it was by far the cannabis capital of California.

So, despite the campaign's ban on smoking it at HQ or while representing Prop 19, I knew it wouldn't be long until I encountered the weed with roots in Frisco. And I was not disappointed. On my first night there, after spending a few hours calling voters (and getting interviewed by the New York Times), I was escorted over to the OU Student Union, which is catty corner to the Yes on 19 HQ. The OU Student Union, like all student unions, is a place for students to relax and socialize. However, I'd wager that other student unions don't have campaign staffers sleeping in the basement and a pair of top of the line VOLCANO vaporizers (one analog, one digital).

I did a few vape bags with the OU students and Yes on 19 staffers, but was fading fast, since I flew out of JFK at 7am.  The Yes on 19 staffers went back to a few hours, and I went back to the Waterfront Hotel in Jack London Square to crash.

I never had to purchase pot during my stay in the Bay. Many people were appreciative of my coming from New York to volunteer for Prop 19, so the locals were probably even kinder with the kind than usual. Some of the stoniest moments included:

  • Going to Schmidt's Tobacco Trading Co. & Pub in Albany and running into a long-time friend of cannabis cultivation expert Ed Rosenthal (with whom I shared a hug and a hit outside HQ after the polls closed). He disappeared on a quest to feed my head, but Berkeley's three dispensaries (including one which had a flight of hash) were overwhelmed with Friday afternoon medicine seekers. When he came back, we repaired to his van for some bowls of a Big Bud x Cheese cross.
  • Attempting to return from canvassing in San Francisco's Noe Valley and Castro neighborhoods to Oakland, I wound up on the wrong BART train. Exiting at the Fruitvale station, I cross over to the Richmond bound side with my "Yes on 19" sign in tow and sat down on the bench. A Friendly Stranger with a large backpack sits down next to me. Conversation ensues:

    Friendly Stranger: "Do you grow?"

    Me: "Huh?"

    Friendly Stranger: "Do you grow cannabis?"

    Me: "No."

    Friendly Stranger: "Well, I do.  I'm a grower from Trinity [County, in the Emerald Triangle, where Prop 19 lost, 59.7% to 40.3%] up north.  Would you like a sample?"

    Me: "Sure!"

    Friendly Stranger: (producing film canister packed tight with joints from backpack)"This is Golden Buddha.  By the way, I have some very reasonably priced eighths."

    Me: (as Friendly Stranger boards a San Francisco bound BART) "Thanks!" 

    I smoked that tasty bone on the brief walk from HQ down Broadway to the OU parking lot after the polls closed on Election Night.

  • Walking up Broadway to HQ early on Election Day with my Prop 19 sign, I was enthusiastically greeted on the corner of 6th Street by two young men who proffered a blunt made with "hydro." I asked them if they were going to vote for Prop 19.  One said he was, but his companion replied, "Naw, man, I got like six felonies."

The main event, though, was Election Night.  I wanted to treat the Prop 19 staff and volunteers to a good time, so I was in search of a source of vegan medibles.  Through contacts I made volunteering, I found a source who agreed to make me a dozen chocolate cupcakes, a dozen mint cupcakes and six personal pizzas with Daiya cheese and coconut oil for $200. I requested that the food be lightly medicated, since I wanted to get people high, not zonked.

After the polls close, I run into "Big Mike" in the OU parking lot at the corner of 17th Street and Broadway. He owns the 420 Limo, a big black limo that he's brought to several NORML conferences, equipped with candy and a built-in vaporizer. It's parked in a corner of the parking lot, to which we retire to smoke bowls, joints and the VOLCANO (after someone kindly fixes it).

The medible man showed up around 9, just as the media was announcing its projections that we were going to lose. The delivery was made under the bright lights of the TV crews scattered throughout the parking lot. I felt a little self-conscious and asked him if we finish our transaction someplace a little less conspicuous. Although I wanted to save the bulk of the goodies for the Prop 19ers, tout le drug policy reform monde is either in the parking lot or inside the OU building, so I treat a few of my colleagues to cupcakes.

I never got into OU that night, but one campaign staffer told me that the scene inside was not a happy one. Despite the immediate spin of proponents that the 46.4 percent of the vote Prop 19 garnered was a win, the donors (including Men's Wearhouse founder George Zimmer) were furious that the initiative lost.

The next day it was time to leave. After dropping the bulk of my treats off at HQ, I wandered over to the OU Student Union for my last session. Dennis, one of the OU students, decided to give an impromptu tasting course using Cheesel (a Cheese x Sour Diesel cross) as his subject. Despite its illustrious progenitors, we all gave it a B.

We smoked some other things at the revolution:

  • California's belief that marijuana prohibition is a workable policy. According to Roger Salazar, the chief strategist for the No on 19 committee, half of his supporters opposed the specific language of Prop 19, not the concept of marijuana legalization. And according to a Greenberg Quinlan Rosner report on Prop 19 issued two days after the election, 52 percent of Californians feel laws against marijuana do more harm than good.
  • The drug policy reform movement's inability to unite behind a common cause.
  • A lack of mainstream allies to form viable electoral coalitions.

We still have a hell of a lot of work to do to win in 2012 -- geographically, demographically and with interest groups from parents to growers. But all of us involved finished the campaign more dedicated than ever to taxing and regulating cannabis in California by 2012. As NORML's executive director Allen St. Pierre likes to sign his e-mails, "ever higher." Let's hope that's at least to 50 percent-plus one.

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