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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Like those of Prop 19 in California, opponents of Amendment 64 spent less than half a million dollars, so the campaign was the reformers' to lose — and they didn't. Amendment 64's ads featured and targeted a key swing group: young moms. The Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol campaign didn't extol the virtues of pot; instead it talked about controlling the drug to keep it away from kids, and promised that the tax revenue from pot regulation would benefit schools. "I think folks in Colorado and Washington learned from California's experience," said Kilmer of RAND.

Colorado's electorate is one-third Democrat, one-third Republican, and one-third Independent, Tvert said, and the Amendment 64 campaign managed to garner support from all three political groups. Young liberals turned out in droves, not just to vote for legalization, but also for President Obama. Legalization polled extremely well with Colorado independents, and on the right, even the cantankerous former GOP Congressman Tom Tancredo campaigned for Amendment 64. "Whenever Tom Tancredo's on our list, it's going to be pretty broad," Tvert said of the coalition that supported the measure.

Colorado also is a traditional battleground state, and, as such, it could be a harbinger for the country. "Colorado is very much an indicator of where things stand nationwide," Tvert said.

Farther West, Washington is a liberal state with a long history of supporting medical cannabis. This year, it also had a group of serious professionals who slam-dunked pot legalization for a state that was simply waiting for it.

Washingtonians legalized medical pot in 1998, two years after Californians did, and ever since they've struggled with how to distribute the drug — not unlike what has happened in the Golden State. Illegal dispensaries have thrived in cities like Seattle, but they've also been subject to raids by federal, state, and local authorities.

Fed up with that chaos, pillars of the Washington community came together to run the Initiative 502 campaign, known as New Approach Washington. The campaign sponsors included Washington ACLU Drug Policy Director Alison Holcomb, Seattle City Attorney Holmes, former US Attorney John McKay, celebrity travel writer Steves, Congresswoman Mary Lou Dickerson, two former presidents of the Washington State Bar, and a former professor at the University of Washington.

In short, this was no coalition of hippie dreamers. Much like Colorado's, the Washington group polled extensively and came up with a moderate form of legalization that lifted penalties for adults possessing personal amounts, but banned home-growing, created a tough new drugged-driving standard, and taxed the industry heavily to fund schools and research.

New Approach Washington spent about $5.7 million on the campaign, including about $2 million on TV advertisements that put tough-talking law enforcement officials against prohibition front and center. "That is really powerful," Reiman said.

Initiative 502 passed, 55 percent to 45 percent, with 1.7 million votes for and 1.4 million votes against. Colorado's Amendment 64 won by the same margin, 55 percent to 45 percent, with 1.3 million votes cast for it and one million votes cast against.

But California is not Washington or Colorado. We're bigger and more diverse. The pot legalization movement here also has failed over the years to unite behind a statewide measure. And while drug-law reformers foresee a domino effect from pot legalization in two states, a historic backlash is possible as well.

One major hurdle for marijuana legalization in California is the diversity of opinion among residents. "In Washington and Colorado you can win over mainstream opinion and you're then likely to win an election," said Zimmerman of Prop 215 fame. "Here in California, you've got to win the approval of a number of different communities, many of which often act independently of the mainstream: Latinos, African Americans, the youth, senior citizens. It's a much more complex task than what our friends in Colorado and Washington have done."

It could cost more than $1 million to gather the half-million valid signatures needed to put an initiative on the California ballot, experts say. Campaign marketing and operations could cost anywhere from $5 million to $15 million. Reiman said pockets that deep do exist in the reform community. "A lot of people have five to ten million dollars laying around. It's just a question of whether the people that have that laying around are going to find this a worthy cause."

Funders will want to see an initiative that's winnable at the polls, yet acceptable to the fractious gaggle of reform groups in California. And that could be tough. During the Prop 19 race, Oaksterdam organizers in Oakland not only had to fight the California Police Chiefs Association and the beer industry, but also the entrenched medical marijuana and illegal marijuana interests in Southern and Northern California.

Sharp divisiveness in the California reform community combined with tepid mainstream support in the electorate also has scared big donors over the years. And without the needed cash, legalization efforts have stalled. No fewer than five groups tried to get a pot law reform initiative on the California ballot in 2012. All failed.


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