California Activists Eye Pot Legalization in 2016

A diverse and passionate group of activists from every part of California gathered in Oakland Friday to debate the shape and message of the state’s imminent 2016 cannabis legalization initiative. The event, a prohibition “post mortem” panel sponsored by the Coalition for Cannabis Policy Reform (CCPR), was notable for its relatively civil tone, but also outlined some of the most difficult challenges facing a diverse state-wide movement attempting to present a unified front to voters over the 22 months between now and Election Day.


Entrepreneur and philanthropist George Zimmer, famous not only as the iconic founder of The Men’s Wearhouse, but also as a key figure in the early campaign for the historic Proposition 215, which legalized the medical use of cannabis for California patients in 1996, opened the symposium by reminding the packed convention hall of the “need to clearly organize and present a united front.” Reminding the group of the stakes which extend beyond the boundaries of the Golden State, Zimmer noted that “when local reform organizations join together, they benefit not just the state but the entire country.” Thus, Zimmer set the tone for the majority of the conference, in which one activist after another exhorted his or her colleagues to set differences aside and join together.

Yet some of the significant divergences of opinion which made such statewide unity so difficult to attain were also on full display, especially after veteran campaign manager Bill Zimmerman took the stage to deliver his keynote. Zimmerman, who joined the Proposition 215 campaign in 1995 and brought a calculating empirical analysis which ruffled a few feathers in the predominantly grassroots movement, appeared to set all such conflict aside when he preached forcefully against “dividing into opposed factions” and recommended instead that “we must join around a single initiative.” Yet in almost the very next moment, his speech began to draw indignant murmurs from the crowd when he insisted that “only the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) is capable of leading that initiative.”

Attorney Bill Panzer took Zimmerman to task for his contention. “There is no limit to what you can accomplish,” retorted Panzer, “if you don’t care who takes the credit.” Other activists echoed Panzer’s sentiments, noting that DPA’s help would be valuable but questioning whether their established state template would best serve Californians.

Leaf co-founder Chris Conrad highlighted other challenges of uniting a fractious movement by referencing an incident at a policy panel at the 2014 Emerald Cup which was disrupted by supporters of the California Cannabis and Hemp Initiative (aka CCHI, or the “Jack Herer initiative”) upset that their group was not represented on the panel. CCPR executive director Dale Sky Jones, who was an invited speaker on the disrupted panel, responded that “these individuals bring a lot of passion, and they’re not going away,” while urging conciliation. “For so long, we have used the First Amendment as our sword and the Fourth Amendment as our shield that we forget sometimes to put down our weapons,” said Jones. “We have to end our circular firing squad to face front against our real enemies.” She went on to praise CCHI’s most vocal members, relating how she told the Emerald Cup disrupters: “We need you. You keep us honest, and hold us to positions we all believe in.”

Despite the evident impediments to unity, much of the symposium’s tone remained collaborative and constructive. Among the high points was an interstate panel which brought together leading activists to compare winning campaign messages from Colorado, Oregon and Washington, D.C. Steve Fox and Jordan Wellington, both attorneys at the Denver-based law firm Vicente Sederberg who were instrumental in drafting and enacting Colorado’s Amendment 64, compared the “pot is safer than alcohol” message which led to victory in their state to the “prohibition isn’t working” message which led the debate in Washington and Oregon.

Anthony Johnson, an attorney in Oregon who led the drafting of that state’s successful Measure 91 legalization initiative, elaborated on the theme by discussing “what prohibition does to children — putting 100% of drug education and supply in the hands of illegal dealers” and noting how similar messages can deflate the kinds of counter arguments opponents of reform are likely to make. But most eye-opening of all was a presentation by DPA’s Tamar Todd on the racial justice narrative which catapulted the Washington, D.C., legalization campaign, Initiative 71, to not only a win, but a landslide victory. The runaway success of Initiative 71, which eschewed television ads for direct mailings and coordinated outreach in the faith community to spread its message that cannabis prohibition is racially unfair, could potentially provide a powerful new template for the next wave of state legalization campaigns.

Ultimately, the event organizers ended on a positive note, lending new hope to the dream of a more unified California movement by announcing a new “California Roundtable” which brings together representatives from CCPR, DPA, the Marijuana Policy Project and Graham Boyd, a former ACLU executive who has assumed responsibility for executing the final wishes of drug reform philanthropist Peter Lewis. While the announcement drew scattered applause, the exclusion from the roundtable of more radical groups like CCHI was conspicuous.

Yet Anthony Johnson urged the group to keep the faith, noting that the Oregon movement successfully passed a progressive measure despite the fact that the movement “had a lot of egos.” After a thoughtful pause he added, “that’s not a problem in California, of course,” drawing roars of laughter from the hall.

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