Clouds at the Ballot Box 

Oakland-based initiative leads what are now four separate statewide cannabis-legalization efforts.

Oaksterdam University founder Rich Lee is emerging as the primary agent of change amid a crowded field of four statewide cannabis-reform efforts. But the seasoned entrepreneur's hope to end prohibition with licensing, regulation, and taxation is being challenged by activists who were once on the same team as him.

Back in June, Lee and other reformers were working with San Francisco attorney Omar Figueroa and Sonoma public defender Joe Rogoway on a legalization bill to take directly to the voters in the 2010 election. But the group split into pragmatists and idealists over the details of the initiative. While Lee and his camp finished the "Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis Act of 2010," which limits personal possession of cannabis to an ounce, Figueroa filed "The Tax, Regulate, and Control Cannabis Act of 2010" in Sacramento with no limits on possession. Now the two wildly different efforts will have fewer than 150 days to gather 430,000 valid signatures, thereby qualifying them for the 2010 ballot.

Meanwhile, a third marijuana-reform initiative just emerged from Long Beach. And when combined with the legalization effort introduced by freshman Democratic Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, the potential for confusion becomes evident.

Lee said he was surprised that his former allies chose such a similar name for their initiative. Nonetheless, he intends to quickly finish signature-gathering, while Figueroa and Rogoway must still muster resources. "Frankly, I give Joe credit for urging me to start this and do the first poll and look into doing it," he said. "We haven't talked much lately. It's been a little disappointing."

Lee said his group will pay the professional signature-gatherering firm Masterton and Wright around $1 million to quickly secure more than 650,000 signatures — 50 percent more than the legally required number. He hopes volunteers will contribute a small fraction to the total. He's not counting on the grassroots, but he hopes they will contribute 10 to 20 percent of the signatures he wants. "We're going to get ours done pretty quickly, so there won't be much confusion," Lee said. He expects to need another $10 to $20 million for a ground and air campaign next year to capture the 56 percent of California voters who told the Field Poll this summer that they favor legalization.

Figueroa and Rogoway did not return phone calls, but their group, the California Cannabis Initiative, is appealing online for lawyers, signature-gathering coordinators, and petition circulators. Their web site states they have only a handful of the dozens who will be needed.

By contrast, the third runner up, the Common Sense Act of 2010, was filed by one retired veteran in Long Beach with a spare $200 to pay the filing fee. He now needs signatures as well.

The only true peer of Lee's effort may be Ammiano's AB 390, a bill that will be heard in two committees this fall. Ammiano said the bill should be viable in the Democrat-controlled state legislature. "Consider that California passed single-payer health care through the legislature, and it's just sitting on the governor's table."

Among the initiatives, Ammiano said Lee's is the one to watch. "I like Richard Lee," he said. "I think he's a really smart guy. We'll see how this all shakes down over the upcoming deadlines and who in a sense is the last man standing. Richard has the funding to carry this over." Still, Ammiano and others believe voter confusion could be a problem. He said he was chagrined when he heard of all the competing initiatives. Message control is essential to any successful campaign, he believes. "I think it's something we have to work on," he says. "This community is not monolithic."

But Lee maintains that all the reform attempts help reinforce the cause. In the 20th Century, seventy-three initiative measures related to prohibition, drugs, and alcohol circulated. Only twenty qualified for the ballot box and just five were approved.

James Wheaton, the Oakland lawyer who authored Lee's initiative, says it all comes down to money. "The real question is, do they have $1 million to get this thing on the ballot?"

Although Lee may indeed have the resources, many in the reform movement would have preferred a 2012 initiave to capture younger, presidential election voters, noted Stephen Gutwillig, state policy director for the Drug Policy Alliance. Those voters will stay on the sidelines until next year, when a final ballot determination is made.

Political analyst and Oakland resident Larry Tramutola said he has high hopes for the Lee initiative. "Lee is savvy and methodical, but it's already confusing and that is a risk."

San Francisco medical cannabis dispensary operator Kevin Reed fears the worst and wants reformers to move slower and more methodically. "This is a huge social experiment, and when they overreach, it threatens to alienate a bunch of voters," Reed said. "Failure could blow up in the face of the medical marijuana community."

The opinion was echoed by James Anthony, lawyer for large Oakland dispensary Harborside Health Center. Anthony blasted Lee online this week, noting that notorious criminal Philip Garrido was a pot smoker and child rapist. A massive, Republican fundamentalist backlash will use the case and others to stomp legal pot at the polls, he fears.

The deadline for signature gathering for the first of the three initiatives begins shortly, and the topic will be hotly debated at the Sept. 27 annual NORML conference in San Francisco.

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