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Why 2016 is the Best Year to Legalize Pot in California

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By and

Fri, Apr 18, 2014 at 6:17 AM
click to enlarge MARDI GRASS/FLICKR
What killed weed legalization in California in 2014?

The simple answer is that people with serious money and political clout didn't believe that older, more conservative voters who go to the polls in off-year elections would back the idea - and by the time the serious money saw private polls that indicated a practical, conservative law could, in fact, pass, it was all but too late to build a solid statewide campaign.

On top of that, a wealthy insurance executive who planned to provide much of the funding for the effort died suddenly, quashing momentum. The good news?
click to enlarge Soon ready for signature-gathering. - MARDI GRASS
The good news is that waiting until 2016 will allow groups who back legalization measures to work out stronger messages and raise enough cash for robust signature-gathering.

That, paired with the fact that it's going to be a presidential election contest -  during which voters will be drawn to the polls to vote for the likes of, say, Hilary Clinton versus Jeb Bush, or Andrew Cuomo versus Ted Cruz - makes it much more likely that California will pass weed legalization in 2016.

Now, four pro-weed groups who tried and failed to get on the ballot this year are refocusing, preparing to gather the 504,760 valid signatures each needs to place its version on the 2016 ballot.

But the inside story about why these competing entities never coalesced into a strong single voice offers a warning: Faced with too many choices, California could end up with a splintered electorate in two years, hurting the chances for weed legalization.

A year ago, leaders of every national marijuana activist organization were certain that the push to legalize weed in California in 2014 would be rejected by the tradition-bound voters who dominate during off-year elections. Wait until 2016, a presidential election year, the smart money said.

Only the most liberal of groups, including the grassroots California Cannabis Hemp Initiative (CCHI), overseen by Berton Duzy and friends of late activist Jack Herer, wanted to give 2014 a shot.

Then last summer, San Jose dispensary operator Dave Hodges and Duzy began fundraising and drafting a legalization initiative with Daniel Sosa, 30, founder of La Brea Collective. But Duzy and Hodges didn't have the kind of money that Sosa knew was needed - $2 million to $3 million just to gather the signatures to put it on the ballot in California.

So in early October, Sosa brought in the big guns: Stephen Gutwillig, deputy executive director at the Drug Policy Alliance, and Graham Boyd, founder of the Drug Law Reform Project - and the lawyer and adviser to billionaire and former Progressive insurance chairman Peter Lewis.
click to enlarge Young Californians drawn to the 2016 presidential race can make the difference. - MARDI GRASS
  • Mardi Grass
  • Young Californians drawn to the 2016 presidential race can make the difference.
Before Lewis died unexpectedly on Nov. 23, 2013, the billionaire had spread around an estimated $40 million to $60 million to back cannabis policy reforms. Lewis was instrumental in nearly every state that legalized medical marijuana. Boyd, meanwhile, played a key role in passing legalization in Colorado, Washington and Uruguay.

To Boyd's surprise, a private poll arranged by Sosa, and twice replicated by Lewis and Boyd, showed a big change of heart among older and more conservative voters.

"I personally was convinced that it was winnable in 2014," Boyd says now. "But generally you want a year, maybe two years, to build a campaign like that."

Boyd, Lewis and Gutwillig went for it anyway. Boyd in November 2013 started to build a DPA-centered coalition - but it did not include Duzy's CCHI group or Hodges' Marijuana Control, Legalization & Revenue Act (MCLR) group.

Boyd says he viewed the groups as uninterested in crafting a practical measure that actually could be approved.

"It was clear we were miles apart," Boyd says. "The other [groups] simply said, 'What would be the best policy? What would be the policy we would like?' ... And our approach was to say, 'What are the range of policies that we find acceptable, and among those, what are the ones the voters will go for?'"

Points of contention were, and probably still are:

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