Reformers: No Marijuana Legalization In California This Year...Ballot Measure In 2010?


Marijuana has generated some headlines in California this week, with a report that a state legislature proposal to legalize and tax it could bring in $1.4 billion for the state, and a proposal from an LA councilwoman to tax medical marijuana. But while reformers have seen the profile of medical marijuana and overall pot legalization raised in 2009, they don't expect the California measure to pass this year.

"In the long term, yes, but I don't think it's gonna pass this summer," Marijuana Policy Project Communications Director Bruce Mirken said.

The bill has not been slated for legislative action in 2009: if it's taken up, it will be when the legislature convenes in 2010, Drug Policy Alliance Deputy State Director for Southern California Margaret Dooley-Sammuli said.

"We expect a more healthy debate, which is a victory in and of itself--a serious debate in the legislature about the benefits and the risks of such a change in policy," Dooley-Sammuli said.

Indeed, that would be a victory for marijuana reformers: the issue has struggled to gain legitimacy in the eyes of the political mainstream in the past (President Obama mocked legalization at a town hall early in his White House tenure, after numerous citizens had submitted questions about it online), but marijuana's venture into the political fore culminated when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said in May that it's time to have that serious debate.

California's budget crisis has played perhaps the biggest role in giving marijuana reform that mainstream cred as an issue for serious consideration. As Mirken pointed out, the state's budget difficulties may not go away anytime soon, and the fiscal imperative for revenue could continue to propel reform efforts beyond 2009.

Reformers often cite the April Field poll that reported 56 percent public support for legalization among Californians. If there's a majority public backing for policy change, and if it is indeed the reticence of public officials that's holding reformers back, a ballot initiative in 2010 could put that support to the test: Oakland-based marijuana entrepreneur Richard Lee suggested to the San Francisco Chronicle in June that he's preparing to try such a measure at the polls.

Drug Policy Alliance's Dooley-Sammuli said there could be "some real money" behind a legalization ballot initiative. That money would be key: as we saw with Proposition 8, ballot fights on social initiatives in California can be intense, and the political infrastructure and financial backing of reform groups would be tested in the realms of field work and TV/radio ad campaigns.

So, as much as it's been talked about as a watershed moment for pot, 2009's budget crisis likely won't yield a major policy shift in California--but ongoing budget difficulties, public support, and the financial werewithal of the reform initiative could determine its future in 2010.

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Chris Good is a political reporter for ABC News. He was previously an associate editor at The Atlantic and a reporter for The Hill.

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