Decriminalize on the rise?

California voters don’t want to legalize pot just yet—but they don’t think anyone should go to jail for it, either. A new ballot initiative might just make this a reality.

Pot-smoking California liberals may not be voting for Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain anytime soon—even though, this week, he did come out in favor of state’s rights when it comes to regulation of medical cannabis. That’s a step up from the Golden State’s current imbroglio with the feds, at least, and President Barack Obama’s admittedly confusing stance on pot.

Turns out, though, California voters have a similarly mixed stance on the drug. They’re not ready to outright legalize marijuana, but they don’t think anybody should be going to jail for using it, either. Or at least that’s what extensive surveys have found, according to Northern California political consultant Bill Zimmerman. He says he’s running an initiative to give the people what they want: decriminalization.

Last week, the California Secretary of State Debra Bowen announced that Zimmerman’s Reduced Marijuana Penalties initiative had qualified for circulation. The initiative limits punishment to a $250 fine or community service for possession, cultivation, sale or transportation of up to 2 ounces of marijuana. It retains existing penalties for marijuana offenses on school grounds and for offenses involving selling pot to a minor, employment of a minor in a criminal marijuana enterprise, and driving under the influence of marijuana. But it makes property forfeiture laws inapplicable to marijuana offenses involving 2 ounces or less.

The proponents now have 150 days to circulate petitions for this measure, meaning the signatures must be collected by April 5, 2012. Zimmerman said his group spent a great deal of time and money on public-opinion research polling after Proposition 19 and found that “the electorate in California is not ready to legalize marijuana for a variety of reasons,” he said at a recent conference. But he said the surveys also show that “we have won the argument about people not going to jail for marijuana offenses.”

“A strong majority in the state seems to agree that the private adult use of marijuana—even though it shouldn’t be legal—should not result in incarceration,” he added. “In the rush to ignore the first conclusion, the second was overlooked as well.”

So, amid a field of more radical alternatives, Zimmerman—a veteran campaign manager of Proposition 215—said he decided to draft his own initiative independently. It extends the decriminalization of adult marijuana use significantly beyond what Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed before leaving office.

“It essentially decriminalizes all cannabis use involving 2 ounces or less, for possession, sale, transport, and cultivation,” Zimmerman said.

Presidential elections are key to marijuana-law reform, but Californians are not yet ready to legalize pot, he argued. “We do not have a viable opportunity to move the ball as far forward as legalization. … We have an opportunity in 2012 to move the ball forward,” he added.

In other words, legalization ain’t happening in 2012, so voters should take what they can get this presidential cycle—and that is more decriminalization.

All California marijuana initiatives face funding challenges. It takes $1.5 million to get on the ballot, Zimmerman said, and perhaps $15 million for a full election. “Without the cash, we’re not going to get on ballot.”

Initiative 1518 needs 504,760 signatures from registered voters—the number equal to 5 percent of the total votes cast for governor in the 2010 gubernatorial election—in order to qualify it for the ballot. Zimmerman said he’s only putting the initiative forward in case the big money wants a safe bet amid a field of long shots.

“We can demonstrate through polling that significant decriminalization of marijuana use is an obtainable goal in 2012, and hopefully it would lead to the ability to pass a full legalization measure in 2016,” he said.

The state’s legislative analyst and director of finance say the fiscal impact of Initiative 1518 on state and local government includes “unknown savings to state and local governments on the costs of enforcing certain marijuana-related offenses, handling the related criminal cases in the court system, and incarcerating and supervising certain marijuana offenders.”

While more than half of the murders in the state go unsolved each year, pot tickets have skyrocketed. Arresting stoners is relatively easy, and they tend to be cordial captives, former police officers say.

Yet with groups such as Regulate Marijuana Like Wine hoping that the electorate will support full legalization along with new taxes and regulation to alleviate some of the state’s dire economic woes, Zimmerman urges caution.

“We found people don’t believe that the savings realized or the new tax revenue generated will be used effectively,” he said. “We live in an era when people think government is inept or corrupt, and that perception undermines our ability to ask people to vote for this because it’ll save money.

“They don’t believe the money will do anything for them—it’ll just be pissed away by politicians.”

Expect more on Initiative 1518 as it develops.