Trouble in La La Land: Late Divisions Emerge Among California Legalization Initiative Supporters


Just as California's broadest based marijuana reform grouping, the Coalition for Cannabis Policy Reform (ReformCA) rolled out its long-awaited pot legalization initiative, much vaunted efforts at unity between ReformCA and powerful national drug reform groups appear to have faltered--and a deep-pocketed tech entrepreneur is now making a play.

As late as last week, ReformCA was referring on its website to the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) and the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) as "supporters," but not any longer. That's at the request of those two groups, who now say they are following their own paths.

"DPA is not involved in this [ReformCA] initiative," DPA California state director Lynne Lyman told AlterNet Wednesday.

Instead, DPA is betting on an as yet unveiled legalization initiative being prepared on behalf of Napster founder and original Facebook president Sean Parker. The tech magnate, who is worth an estimated $2.7 billion, is a philanthropist and legalization supporter, and donated $100,000 to the failed 2010 Proposition 19 effort. 

While no one was willing to go on the record about the exact nature of the differences between the players, they appear to be related to two broad issues: money and "political viability." Sean Parker and other funders allied with him have the cash to run a campaign, which could cost more than $10 million by the time voters go to the polls. Right now, nobody else has that kind of money lined up. 

And there is concern that an initiative not be too radical to gather popular support or excite organized opposition by powerful interests in the state, such as law enforcement, local governments, and state-level elected officials. The ReformCA initiative, for example, provides for fairly liberal personal cultivation (100 square feet of canopy) and does not create an offense of marijuana-impaired driving (opting instead to rely on existing impaired driving laws). It's unclear at this point how the other potential initiatives will address these sorts of issues since no drafts are publicly available, but these concerns seem to be causing some of the friction. 

There were reports earlier this year that Parker was vowing to invest in legalization efforts, and this week, it became clear that he was interested in far more than merely being a money bags. According to reports beginning to dribble out this week, Parker and some other deep-pocketed Californians are drafting their own initiative, which has yet to be unveiled.

At this point, they're remaining tight-lipped. One of them, founder and CEO Justin Hartfield, who has a million dollars in campaign committee to support a legalization initiative this year, declined comment on the Parker move, saying he was "under strict orders not to talk to reporters until next week."

Parker representatives did not respond to phone calls and emails from AlterNet.

"We are giving input to the Sean Parker drafting process and we believe it has the best chance of moving forward and winning," said DPA's Lyman. "We hope in its final iteration it is something we can support, but as Plan B, we're still circulating and advancing our own draft."

The ReformCA initiative would be a third-place Plan C, Lyman said.

MPP is also now keeping its distance from the ReformCA initiative.

"We're still in the process of evaluating drafts and trying to determine the best possible step forward," said the group's communications director, Mason Tvert. "We're not part of the coalition that filed that initiative, but we haven't decided on any language yet. A lot of people are reevaluating after the legislature passed those bills," he added, referring to comprehensive, statewide regulation of medical marijuana approved in Sacramento last month.

MPP is talking to the Parker people, too, he said.

"There are discussions taking place with Parker, but there are certainly various different drafts coming together," he said. "Our focus is on making sure the best initiative moves forward, but it needs to be done sooner rather than later. A sense of urgency is growing."

That's because the clock is ticking. With a soft deadline of February to get signature gathering completed (although it could go later depending on the kind of signature counting required), petition drives are going to have to be fast and furious, and that means more expensive. On the bright side, thanks to low voter turnout in the 2014 mid-terms, only a relatively paltry 385,000 signatures are needed to qualify, as opposed to more than 500,000 some years.

With a broad-based coalition behind it, but now facing the prospect of a harder scramble for funding, ReformCA remains unbowed. It has some fund-raising tricks up its sleeve, including a a crowd-sourced funding campaign, and there is still a lot of uncommitted marijuana industry money floating around. 

"Things are up in the air and people will look at the various proposals out there and then decide where to put their money," said California NORML head Dale Gieringer, who is also a ReformCA spokesman. "We're working on it, we're moving ahead, and I think we will have a superior product at the end of the day."

Gieringer acknowledged the 800-pound gorilla in the room.

"Sean Parker is a big deal, but we'll see what he comes up with, but the last I knew, they didn't have very good language. Maybe they'll borrow our language, and that would be fine," he said.

"This is a year to be bold," he added. "DPA doesn't tend to be bold."

The ReformCA, DPA, and Sean Parker initiatives aren't even the only game in town. A half dozen other legalization measures have already been filed. While none of them look to have the money or organization to get on the ballot, "any one of them could be picked up by somebody with money who wants to run with it," Gieringer said.

Just when clarity was expected to emerge, the situation for pot legalization in California grows even more confusing. Given the money piling up, the likelihood that an initiative will not make the ballot next year is approaching absolute zero. Instead, unless the competing efforts come together, Californians could be choosing between two or three ways to legalize pot when they go the ballot box next November. 

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