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Proposition 19 Dreams of Legal Weed 

Bruce Margolin has defended 25,000 pot cases and Timothy Leary. Now he's primed for ganja tourists and sensimilla spas

Thursday, Oct 21 2010

In Amsterdam, The Kid would have dropped off his delivery of 10 2-inch pot seedlings and pedaled his bike along the Oudezijds Voorburgwal canal and into the sunset.

But this is the tiny town of San Fernando.

Barely on the legal side of 21, The Kid was facing down a felony conviction, four months in jail, thousands of dollars in fines, expulsion from his upscale university, severely teed-off parental units and a pouty girlfriend. And The Kid's lawyer wasn't just anybody. His name is synonymous with fighting weed busts in California: Bruce Margolin. All this for selling a 10-pack of marijuana sprouts to an undercover LAPD officer.

click to flip through (5) ILLUSTRATION BY BRIAN STAUFFER

The Kid wasn't looking to make money on the deal. He'd been part of a pot collective when he lived in San Jose after high school, freelancing as a computer-repair tech who made house calls to the Silicon Valley's army of telecommuters. In his free time, he grew plants for cancer patients at a San Jose marijuana collective. When he moved down to Southern California to get his life on track, go to college and make something of himself, he had a couple dozen leftover marijuana plants — barely sprouts, really — in Styrofoam cups.

So he did what came naturally to a 20-something geek: He logged on to and offered 10 of them to the first person who would pay $6 a plant. A deal, considering that most marijuana dispensaries price their seedlings around $20 apiece.

"I was just trying to get rid of them, adopt these babies out," The Kid says. "I thought I was going to help people."

The Kid went to the Northridge Big Boy parking lot to hand off the plants to their new owner, the first to respond to the Craigslist posting.

Turned out the first responder was a posse of five undercover narcotics agents. And one of them was pointing a gun at The Kid's head.

Dumb kid, you're probably thinking. Yeah. But there's no doubt The Kid was also slammed with bad timing, getting busted in July for something that, just months later, could turn out to be perfectly legal.

On November 2, California will vote on Proposition 19, a measure intended to make it lawful for adults 21 and older to possess up to an ounce of marijuana, as well as the freedom to grow the weed in a 25-square-foot plot.

Experts on either side of the marijuana issue don't agree on much — including whether legalization will lead the state into chaos and ruin — but they do agree that there's a real chance the people will vote to toke.

It's generally accepted among people who track pot's popularity that California has between 2.5 million and 3 million regular — read daily — pot smokers. That's 6 percent to 8 percent of the state's population. And that doesn't count the occasional tokers — another million or so — like the hipster who takes a turn when a pipe is passed around at a party or the aging baby boomer who might partake for the first time in a long time at a reunion rock concert.

In June, a statewide Field Poll of adults showed Proposition 19 losing, 48 percent to 42 percent. A Field Poll in late September put the measure in the lead, 49 percent to 42 percent. A September 30 Public Policy Institute of California poll showed Proposition 19 leading 52 percent to 41 percent among adult voters.

"This is really good news," says Richard Lee, president of Oaksterdam University, a school for would-be pot gardeners. "L.A. is a good sign, with 56 percent approval, and San Francisco is at 59, and if we carry both, we should win."

But what would the passage of Proposition 19 really mean?

Would the financially tattered Golden State finally move into the black, with tax revenues from a multibillion–a-year industry? Would California become the Amsterdam of North America, with a green-light district and the free-spending tourists to fill pot-combo coffee shops? Or would legalization merely embolden the subculture of long-illegal distributors to continue their underground ways, dreaming up vast tax-avoidance schemes?

The usual suspects, i.e., the pundits quoted in all the standard media, say it's going to be one big mess.

For one thing, Proposition 19 might indeed legalize pot statewide, but only for personal use. It allows local governments to set the rules on the business side. The locals can decide if commercial cultivation and distribution are allowed within their borders and how that can be done, almost guaranteeing a statewide crazy quilt of enforcement and taxation.

And the feds oppose it, with Attorney General Eric Holder vowing earlier this week to "vigorously enforce" federal law in California that bans the possession or growth of pot.

"Running a state by referendum is a bad idea," says Mark A.R. Kleiman, the UCLA public policy professor who edits the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis and wants marijuana legalized — but not commercialized. He envisions a law that lets you grow your own, or allows you to join a co-op that grows for you, hence no marijuana industry.

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