Will a divided marijuana community jeopardize California's legalization effort?

California marijuana legalization in 2016 looks anything but certain

At a meeting with marijuana-legalization reformers earlier this month, major players rehashed past grievances and (still) debated how to move forward in 2016.

At a meeting with marijuana-legalization reformers earlier this month, major players rehashed past grievances and (still) debated how to move forward in 2016.


David Downs is an occasional SN&R contributor who also writes the “Legalization Nation” column for the East Bay Express.

California marijuana legalization in 2016 looks anything but certain after a major January meeting where leading activists showed how divided they remain. The possibility of ending nearly a century of cannabis prohibition within the next 650 or so days has increased factionalism within the reform movement.

In a small hotel banquet room on the waterfront of Oakland’s Jack London Square, luminaries of pot-law reform rehashed grievances and honed new disputes over future initiative language, as well as campaign funding and control.

Contrary to headlines, the political reality is grim: a slim majority supports legalization in a massive state of 38 million people. Support is weakest among voters over 50, women, ethnic groups and in rural areas. Legalization lost in 2010 with Proposition 19 and reformers were so divided no measure appeared on ballots in either 2012 or 2014.

Keynote speaker and campaign consultant Bill Zimmerman outlined three ways in which legalization can lose in 2016: if proponents demand too much, divide into opposing factions or draw in heavily funded opposition.

The main friction points will be initiative language, specifically: exactly who will control and profit from a legal market; taxes; protections for medical-marijuana patients and dispensaries; the right to grow at home and how much; and an age limit of 18 versus 21.

“Our belief about what is right has to be put aside in the interest of what is possible,” Zimmerman said. That tactical thinking alienates many hard-core activists.

Assemblyman Bill Quirk made for an auspicious guest at the event. “I am fully in support of legalization,” he said. But Quirk was not hopeful about action on the issue from the California Legislature.

“The Assembly is very conservative, at least on this issue,” he said.

For example, former lawmaker Tom Ammiano’s bill to regulate medical marijuana failed, and “that was just to regulate medical marijuana,” Quirk said. “The [California State] Sheriffs’ [Association] opposed it, and the [California] Police Chiefs [Association]. I think they were reckless. We need good legislation, that was good legislation. As soon as they opposed it, we just lost a lot of people in the Assembly, including a lot of so-called ’progressive Democrats.’”

Meanwhile, another failed 2014 bill, by lawmaker Lou Correa, “was basically an anti-medical marijuana bill,” he said. “That passed the Senate. And then we could not get the pro-medical marijuana bill—which had very strict regulations—out of the Assembly, because the sheriffs and the police chiefs didn’t like it. So I’m not optimistic.”

With a statewide vote to legalize marijuana likely on November 8, 2016, key deadlines are looming for writing and filing a proposed law; collecting hundreds of thousands of signatures; turning in those signatures to get on the ballot; and then running a winning campaign.

Multiple reform groups will try to run this gantlet. History says nearly all of them will fail.

The California Secretary of State’s Office suggests July 7 of this year as the last day to submit a measure to the state attorney general and request an official title and summary. Hitting this deadline is a sign of seriousness. It also means that reform groups have only about 160 days between now and July 7 to draft, poll, and refine the text of what would be a historic law. If reformers fail to fully test their ballot language during the next weeks and months, it’s game over before it even starts.

“It is very soon—that’s part of my concern,” said Dale Sky Jones, chairwoman of ReformCA, a broad coalition that has been growing since Proposition 19 failed in 2010, and includes California NORML and the NAACP.

“We want to pass the most ambitious and possible law out there, but one word in the title can mess up everything,” said Jim Gonzalez, political strategist for ReformCA.

We get the first real sense of legalizers’ war chest in August, when electronic-campaign finance reports become available for the reporting period of January through June 30 (due by July 31). Leading groups such as ReformCA, Marijuana Policy Project, Drug Policy Alliance and others must show fundraising momentum to pay for signatures, staff and ads.

“Early money is like yeast—it makes the bread rise,” Jones said. “It is the most important money.”

A winning initiative campaign could cost a half-a-million dollars just to pay for professional signature gatherers (volunteers can’t do it). A campaign would then need another $10 million for full operations and advertising without major opposition. With opposition, the price tag grows to anywhere from $15 million to $20 million. And those are costs that no single reform group can bear.

A well-oiled, on-time campaign should kick off its signature gathering by Labor Day. Campaigns have 180 days from the day Attorney General Kamala Harris issues her title and summary to collect the necessary signatures. Collecting signatures has never been easier, though, said Joe Trippi, veteran campaign manager for Howard Dean and Jerry Brown, who is also working with ReformCA.

The number of valid signatures needed to qualify an initiative is equal to at least 8 percent of the total votes cast for governor in the last gubernatorial election. Luckily for pot-law reformers, the 2014 California election had one of the lowest voter turnouts of all time—the worst since 1978: just 7.3 million—or 42.2 percent of California’s eligible voters—voted. In the 2010 governor’s race, by contrast, 10 million voters cast ballots.

That means activists have to get 585,407 valid signatures for the 2016 election, rather than of hundreds of thousands more. With signatures costing about $1 each to gather, voter apathy in 2014 just made pot legalization several hundred thousand dollars cheaper.

“It’s ridiculous. There’s almost no barrier [to getting onto the ballot],” Trippi said. “I’ve been working in the state since 1975, and I’ve never seen it like this.”