California Puts Legalizing Marijuana on Ballot
California Secretary of State Debra Bowen announced Wednesday that an initiative known as the Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis Act of 2010 has qualified for the ballot. Sponsors of the measure submitted 694,248 signatures, far more than the 433,971 they needed to win a place on the Nov. 2 ballot.
The initiative would allow anyone 21 or older to possess up to an ounce of marijuana and cultivate plants in an area up to 25 square feet. It also would allow local governments to regulate and tax the cultivation, distribution and sale of marijuana in their jurisdictions.
At the same time, the measure would prohibit the possession of marijuana on school grounds; outlaw providing marijuana to anyone under 21; and ban smoking marijuana in public or in front of a minor. It would not overturn the conviction of anyone who violated marijuana laws before the initiative's passage.
"It takes the cannabis industry out of the black market, out of the back alleys, and brings it into retail establishments," campaign spokeswoman Dale Sky Clare said. "We can have safer communities by controlling and taxing cannabis."
The measure is sponsored by activist Richard Lee, who contributed more than $1 million to the signature-gathering drive. Lee operates a medical marijuana dispensary and other marijuana-related businesses in Oakland. He is the founder and president of Oaksterdam University, which teaches students how to cultivate the plant and operate medical marijuana dispensaries.
The university, which is closely connected to the initiative campaign, is growing rapidly and recently moved its main campus into a 30,000-square-foot building in downtown Oakland.
California has long been in the forefront of the marijuana legalization movement. In 1996, voters approved Proposition 215, which authorized the use of marijuana for medical purposes and inspired similar measures in other states.
Since the proposition's passage, hundreds of medical marijuana dispensaries have sprung up around California. They have contributed to economic growth in some communities -- most notably downtown Oakland -- but also have posed regulatory problems in others, particularly the city of Los Angeles.
The campaign over the legalization initiative is certain to be hard-fought and costly.
No formal campaign opposition has emerged, but opponents can be expected to argue that legalizing marijuana would result in greater consumption, exposure to second-hand smoke, increased automobile and industrial accidents and reduced academic achievement.
There may also be some who argue that the initiative does not go far enough because it limits legal use to adults, doesn't free those now in jail for marijuana offenses, and could create a system of patchwork regulation by cities and counties.
Nevertheless, after decades of working to legalize marijuana, activists may finally have hit upon the right timing and approach to win over the general public. A Field Poll conducted last year found that 56 percent of Californians supported the idea of legalizing and taxing marijuana.
In part, that may be because state and local governments are desperate for cash. The state has been compelled to raise fees repeatedly at public universities, require state workers to take unpaid furloughs and begin releasing inmates from overcrowded prisons.
"There are voters across every demographic group who are not necessarily pro-pot, but they understand the present system is not working and are well aware that California could use an extra billion bucks a year," said Dan Newman, a strategist with the campaign. "The combination of the current marijuana laws not working and the disastrous fiscal situation has created a situation where many people see this as a commonplace reform."
Supporters of the measure hope to raise as much as $10 million to win passage of the measure, Newman said. The campaign in support of the initiative kicked off the first day by issuing a statement that included backing from retired law enforcement officers and a judge from conservative Orange County.
"I've been on the front lines of the drug war for three decades, and I know from experience that the current approach is simply not working," said retired Superior Court Judge James P. Gray. "Controlling marijuana with regulations similar to those currently in place for alcohol will put street drug dealers and organized crime out of business."
Marijuana would still be illegal under U.S. law, but supporters of the measure hope that the federal government would abstain from enforcing the law, as it is doing now with medical marijuana sales.
Clare, also the executive chancellor of Oaksterdam University, said the initiative would allow cities and counties to adopt a wide range of activities -- or none at all.
An agricultural county could authorize large-scale marijuana growing to produce hemp, a durable fiber that can be used in making paper, clothing or rope. "Labor unions see this as an opportunity for tens of thousands of jobs," Clare said.
Or a city such as Oakland or Berkeley could issue a permit to a bar or nightclub to serve marijuana rather than alcohol, she said. There also could be the equivalent of "dry counties" where the sale of marijuana is not permitted, although possession would still be allowed.
The campaign is drafting a range of model ordinances that local governments could adopt if the initiative is approved by voters, she said.
Clare attempted to counter expected opposition from law enforcement by pointing out that local authorities could tax marijuana to help train and equip police departments, among other expenditures.
"Right now, the profit margins are going to buy more guns for the Mexican cartels," she said. "That same margin could be paid into what matters most to Californians: education, public health and public safety."