When Will California Legalize Pot? 

Now that Colorado and Washington have done it, California reformers are eyeing 2014 or 2016 for another ballot initiative — but their optimism is laced with caution.

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"When these social issues begin to change and the public begins to view them a little different, the numbers can tumble pretty radically," said Zimmerman. "I think we've seen that on gay marriage as well as on gay rights — the numbers on those two issues moved very dramatically in a very short time."

That's good news for civil rights activists, the LGBT community, and pot reformers. "Think we've hit the tipping point," Reiman said of the public's attitude on marijuana. "It's a fantastic public policy experiment. There could be actual benefits, not just about these horrible things not happening, but good things could come out of this."

Some pundits have credited President Obama's decision earlier this year to come out in support of same-sex marriage for helping turn the tide on that issue. Conversely, if his administration embarks on a federal campaign to punish Washington and Colorado for legalizing pot, it could have a chilling effect on reform efforts.

While the federal government cannot stop states from repealing drug laws, it could sue to try to block the implementation of regulations in Colorado and Washington. The feds could also attempt to withhold federal transportation funds, or other retaliatory moves.

US Attorney General Eric Holder may have singlehandedly defeated Proposition 19 when he flew into Los Angeles for a pre-election press conference and blasted the initiative. Federal tolerance of state legalization also could threaten US treaties with Latin American countries that fight our drug war, Campos noted.

Former DEA head Peter Bensinger is trying to mobilize retired DEA agents and narcotics officers to lobby the Obama administration for a crackdown, according to correspondence that I obtained. In one email dated November 15, Bensinger urged the Association of Former Federal Narcotics Agents (AFFNA) to take action. "We want to make it easy for all of you to help us put pressure on the Administration to step in and stop Colorado and Washington from implementing the legalization of marijuana," he wrote. "We need to push back.

"AFFNA members can contact www.saveoursociety.org for talking points," Bensinger continued. "If you need more ammo, let me know."

Drug warriors also have a strong economic incentive to fight legalization. "The money [from the federal War on Drugs] is just too big for police departments through grants and asset seizures," explained Downing of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. "The state prison population is going down for the first time ever, but the federal prison population is increasing. All of that has to do with money."

And the backlash from drug warriors may be working. On December 7, The New York Times reported that the Obama Justice Department is weighing options as to how to respond to Colorado and Washington and whether to launch a crackdown or file lawsuits in those states. At the same time, drug reform advocates are girding for a long, tough battle. "I think it's vital for anybody who wants to keep the momentum going to recognize that there's going to be blowback in a serious way," Campos told me. "There's an enormous amount of practical, material interests wrapped up in the drug war. Those people must be putting a lot of pressure on Obama right now. The prison-industrial complex is super-dependent on the War on Drugs. We're at a really crucial moment."

Legalization in Washington and Colorado marks not only the beginning of the end, many say, but also the beginning of the most difficult part. "We are looking up a huge mountain right now and we're all taking deep breaths and looking around and gearing up for a really long but hopefully successful fight," Reiman said. "I think Californians are ready."

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