Why 2016 is the Best Year to Legalize Pot in California
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?
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.
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:
- Who, if anyone, would regulate the sale and cultivation of marijuana?
- What limits would apply to home growing?
- How high should taxes be?
- Where should the tax revenue go?
- Who can be arrested?
Among these efforts, CCHI would have allowed "for personal use and possession of cannabis grown for personal consumption," according to its circulation language, while the MCLR sought to create alcohol-like taxation and regulation of pot.
Many key stakeholders, including prosecutors, law enforcement and addiction specialists, got behind the DPA initiative that Boyd and Gutwillig drafted without Sosa.
Sosa, meanwhile, went another direction, saying his poll showed that voters would support full decriminalization, under which nobody can go to jail for cannabis. He felt the DPA plan left in the possibility of jail time.
"I was kind of surprised that they did that, to put it mildly," Sosa says. "The people that have the most money don't want to repeal prohibition. They want to keep it criminal and only want to let certain people be able to possess and grow [marijuana]. And we have to be careful that that doesn't happen."
Over the past three months, the four separate legalization efforts aimed at the November 2014 ballot fell like dominos.
The well-connected and monied DPA pulled out in February. A group formed by marijuana activist and author Ed Rosenthal specifically to challenge aspects of DPA's plan then dropped out. CCHI was disqualified by the California Secretary of State because it failed to turn in enough signatures on time, and was given an extension it could not meet.
ThorEd Rosenthal Super Bud, named for a key activist fighting the more conservative legalization plan.
Then last week, Hodges, leader of the MCLR, announced, "We're officially throwing in the towel."
CCHI sponsor Duzy tells Rolling Paper that, despite the fact that the Secretary of State granted an extended deadline for signature-gathering, "We're not going to make 2014."
From here on, these forces will be chasing a new deadline of Aug. 18, 2014, to gather enough signatures to put their question on the ballot in 2016 - but even that's not a hard deadline, since they can file a new measure and get a much later date by which to file signatures.
The result of all this is that California, often a leader in social change by ballot box, now finds itself a follower.
Colorado and Washington have already legalized recreational weed, and Alaska and Oregon may do so soon.
But that hasn't reduced the national and local interest in what this influential state of 38 million people will decide.
Voters might hope that these battling weed groups would absorb lessons from their failures in 2014, and try to reach an internal agreement that streamlines their desires into a solid 2016 measure with a well-organized fundraising arm.
That's not at all likely.
CCHI spokesman and backer Duzy says, for example, "We'll go up against DPA [Drug Policy Alliance] and NORML in 2016, and try to get ours to qualify."
We'd now expect the DPA, a national organization, to lead the way toward 2016 - with the others possibly nipping at its heels.
Gutwillig, DPA's deputy executive director for programs, acknowledges that billionaire activist George Soros could potentially help DPA in 2016, but says, "It's possible to do this at this point with or without him, because there's now a large enough base of support."
He says a groundswell of support among voters likely will continue in 2016, saying, "Look for legalization campaigns in Alaska and Oregon this cycle as well as a medical marijuana ballot initiative in Florida. That is plenty to keep the momentum going."
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