The Push to Legalize Marijuana: It's Real

You may have heard there's a push to legalize marijuana in California. You may not have heard that it's for real.

Voting ballots in California this November will contain an initiative to legalize, tax, and regulate the sale of marijuana to adults 21 and older, and while this may sound like something that has no chance, whatsoever, of ever becoming law, the thing is: it actually might.

The organized campaign around this initiative is called Tax Cannabis, and it's the brainchild of marijuana entrepreneur Richard Lee. "Marijuana entrepreneur" sounds highly illegal, but, in California, where medical pot is sold unobstructed by the feds, it's not: Lee founded Oaksterdam University, a school that teaches how to grow marijuana and run a marijuana business, as chronicled by Josh Green in The Atlantic last April.

This was not, mind you, originally an effort of the national marijuana policy establishment, per se. According to conventional wisdom on initiatives like this one, 2012 would be a better year to dedicate resources to a marijuana legalization campaign: it's a presidential election year, and younger and marginal voters--voters who could be more sympathetic to legalizing pot--will come out to vote, whereas fewer people vote in the midterms. People who vote in midterms are more engaged in the process--if pollsters label respondents as "likely voters," then the midterm turnout is made up of are even likelier voters than the electorate in presidential years--the type of people who might not, typically, support an initiative like this one. So, much like in California's gay-marriage movement, there was some hesitation over whether 2010 was the right year to do this.

But Lee went ahead anyway, putting up money from Oaksterdam and another of his groups, marijuana provider S.K. Seymore, LLC, to obtain the 849,000 signatures needed to get on the November 2 ballot, with his donations comprising most of the roughly $1.3 million spent in 2009 on the petition drive.

Lee now has a a team of pros working for him as campaign consultants.

It includes Chris Lehane, the former Bill Clinton communications adviser and press secretary for Al Gore, both as VP and in the 2000 campaign; Dan Newman, whose firm SCN Strategies consults for Sen. Barbara Boxer's (D) reelection campaign and is heading up communications for Level the Playing Field 2010, the independent-expenditure campaign against multimillionaire GOP gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman; and Doug Linney of The Next Generation, a firm that has worked for state and local candidate campaigns, as well as major issue-advocacy drives and marijuana decriminalization/law-enforcement-prioritization efforts in California.

In short, this will be a legitimate campaign operation. Tax Cannabis is already airing a radio ad in the state's largest and most expensive media markets, L.A. and San Francisco, featuring a former law enforcement official.

"This isn't some...whim of a couple of hippies," said SCN's Dan Newman, who is handling communications for Tax Cannabis. "It's a serious, well crafted, well funded campaign that was put together very carefully and professionally run and hopes to win."

The campaign will do "everything that a winning campaign does," Newman said. That would mean radio ads, TV ads, volunteer and/or robo- phone calls, door-to-door canvasses, and direct mail. Newman would not specifically say which of those Tax Cannabis will do.

Messaging will focus heavily on invoking the support of former law enforcement officials, plus the argument that has driven so much media coverage around this push: estimates that legalizing and taxing marijuana could help California's crippled state budget to the tune of $1 billion, including tax revenue and less spending on law enforcement.

Where will the money come from to fund this campaign? Lee infused it with cash to get the signatures, but according to state financial disclosures, Tax Cannabis has only $32,000 in the bank. The only state-registered opposition group, called "Opposition to the California Marijuana Legalization Initiative (2010)," has not filed disclosure paperwork, so it is unclear how much money Tax Cannabis is up against.

The campaign is reaching out to a broad coalition of donors, Newman said, including an online fundraising operation and traditional political donors.

But the elephant in the room is this: Tax Cannabis has the support of the Drug Policy Alliance, one of several major, national-level drug-policy reform groups. On its board sits liberal super-donor George Soros.

Given how expensive it is to buy air time in the Golden State--L.A. is one of the nation's most expensive media markets--it's not uncommon for political campaigns to wait until a few weeks before Election Day to blast the radio and TV airwaves with a major media buy. And, because California places no limits on donations and spending on ballot initiatives, it is conceivable that if things look close down the stretch, and he felt so inclined, Soros could inject millions of dollars into this initiative.

Right now, the campaign is working to secure endorsements, and the language of the ballot initiative was crafted, Newman said, with an eye toward garnering a broad base of support. It does not simply legalize pot outright: it allows individual counties to regulate the sale and possession to adults over 21, which would likely create a similar effect as "dry counties," where alcohol can't be sold. It does not legalize possession of marijuana on school grounds, or driving while impaired. The entire proposition is posted here.

Reformers claim legalization is popular. A major public poll hasn't been conducted since April 2009, when Field showed 56% support out of 901 Californians polled. Newman says Tax Cannabis has conducted internal polls that show legalization polling in the mid-50s.

November is a long way off. Marijuana legalization gained significant traction in 2009, mostly because of California's budget crisis, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's suggestion that it be seriously discussed, the drug war happening in Mexico, and the finding of the Field poll.

Although Tax Cannabis is airing a radio ad, a public messaging campaign has yet to ramp up against legalizing pot. When it does--when both sides are conducting this fight in public--look for opinion to congeal either for the ballot initiative or against it.

Until then, legalized pot remains a possible outcome in November 2010.

Thumbnail image credit: Wikimedia Commons