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April 24, 2012

Pot legalization efforts fail to qualify for 2012 ballot in California

As reported in this prior post, it became official yesterday that Californians will get a chance to vote this fall on a ballot initiative to repeal the state's death penalty.  But, as reported in this effective local story about other initiative news, headlined "Marijuana Legalization Efforts Fail in California, Thanks to Money and The Feds," these voters will not get another chance to consider marijuana legalization in the 2012 ballot booth.  Here is part of the backstory:

Few successful political movements count their finest hours a loss. Yet 2010 will remain the high water mark of the marijuana legalization movement for at least another two years -- or longer, if the federal situation worsens.

Buoyed by Oaksterdam University founder Richard Lee's cash and energy, Proposition 19 -- which would have legalized possession of up to an ounce of pot for adults 21 and over, and allowed cultivation of small gardens -- lost in November 2010. It garnered a historic 4.6 million votes, or 46.2 percent of ballots cast.  Following the loss, Lee declared on election night that legalization was inevitable, and that legalization would return in 2012 "stronger than ever" with a new ballot measure.

While Lee bowed out -- and the Prop. 19 redux committee instead focused on reforming medical marijuana -- the 2012 election cycle began with four competing legalization measures. But what was inevitable became official on Friday, when all committees missed the deadline to qualify their initiatives for the November ballot....

Of the failed efforts, one -- Regulate Marijuana Like Wine -- came closest, according to proponent Steve Kubby, a South Lake Tahoe-based activist.  That measure managed to collect about 200,000 signatures [of the 500,000 needed], Kubby said on Monday. Other efforts like Repeal Cannabis Prohibition, sponsored by a coterie of attorneys in Mendocino County and the Bay Area, waved the surrender flag much earlier.

So what killed the legalization movement? Money, mostly. In 2010, the federal government helped defeat Prop. 19: In the weeks before the election, Attorney General Eric Holder warned that if the measure passed, his Justice Department would "vigorously enforce" federal drug laws.  That had a cooling effect -- as did U.S. Attorney for Northern California Melinda Haag's shot sent across the bows of Oakland and other cities eager to cash in on legal weed.  Haag also said that Prop. 19's passage would mean lots of work for federal drug enforcement.

Nowadays in Bay Area marijuana circles, Haag is seen as somewhere between the bogeyman and evil incarnate for her office's participation in a statewide crackdown on the medical marijuana industry.  It's a near-certainty that the closures of hundreds of dispensaries across the state by the feds had some kind of effect -- which would have been moot in the face of money....

Meanwhile, Lee's influence has all been neutralized. Well before the federal government relieved him of his business, he abdicated his throne as the movement's de-facto leader. He'd spent his life savings -- about $1.5 million -- and an untold effort on Prop. 19.  It was someone else's turn, he later told reporters.  "The polling wasn't really positive," Lee said on a conference call with reporters last week.  "But what's really overwhelming right now is the federal issue."

Right.  Many marijuana supporters speculate that the crackdown will lessen once President Barack Obama is reelected in the fall.  And if he isn't?  Well, you may be able to wistfully tell your grandkids about the wonder that 2010 was.

Beyond providing another lesson in "follow the money," this story spotlights how unpredictable the movement to end pot prohibition is likely to be in the coming years.  After the (surprisingly?) close vote in 2010, I expected California to be the state to watch for growth in the legalization movement.  But, perhaps in part because of how close the vote was in 2010, a lot of forces impacted the script and now it appears that Colorado and Washington become the 2012 states to watch in the legalization effort. 

April 24, 2012 at 05:58 PM | Permalink


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"After the (surprisingly?) close vote in 2010, I expected California to be the state to watch for growth in the legalization movement."

What was surprising was not the closeness but the outcome itself. Early polls had Prop 19 winning, and some commentators, including not a few on this site, were already giddy about their "victory." Unfortunately for the pro-dope side, enough of the electorate seems to have actually read the thing so that it lost on election day by a bigger margin than Sen. McCain.

As long as dopers keep insisting that they can light up, federal law be damned, they will rightly be suspected of terminal arrogance. That is, they'll be reasonably suspected of just deciding for themselves that, Since They Know Better Than Anybody Who Disagrees With Them, obeying drug laws (and who knows how many others) is for suckers. In other contexts, this is known as vigilantism, but in this one, it's known as We're Cooler Than You Are.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Apr 24, 2012 8:08:02 PM

Bill I do detect a bit of aggression in your tone, but think I'll give it a whirl. You are right, the only way to change direction is through federal legislation.

States have nibbled away at the edges of legalization attempting to get relief. These efforts have had some failure and some success. There is an ebb and flow, but the trajectory is kind of clear. There is now a dialogue that would have been unthinkable five years ago.

Concern about the financial cost of prohibition, the growing awareness of criminal justice excesses, and an increasing concern for civil liberties will probably accelerate this discussion after the election. Right now, political leaders, democrats and republicans are showing excessive caution.

Posted by: beth | Apr 25, 2012 1:26:42 AM

beth --

I am aggressive from time to time, but I try never to be aggressive with you. I was egged on by some of my adversaries who were proclaiming victory on Prop 19 before the vote, then swore they'd be back in 2012 to win. Now, that's not going to happen either.

I don't know that this debate wouldn't have been possible five years ago. I debated legalization as early as 2003, when I became the counselor to the head of the DEA.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Apr 25, 2012 12:41:34 PM

I know legalization has been debated for years, but I don't believe I ever saw it as part of main stream media - audio, visual and journalistic - as it is today. I am a bit of a junkie (don't misinterpret - media junkie) although I don't trust my instincts as soundly as I used to, it seems apparent to me that everyone except those running for office is debating life style issues and the legislation that constrains them.

The problem with the state initiatives is that they are frequently not straight forward enough. When coupled with the regulation and specifics of implementation, these bills begin to look like crony capitalism. When CNBC featured a successful hedge fund operator who was moving to Iowa to establish a cannabis business it seemed like a prophecy.

Posted by: beth | Apr 25, 2012 4:09:37 PM

I am a high school student, and I approve of the legalization of marijuana. Alchohol literally kills thousands of people a year, now show me the proof of marijuana killing thousands of people. Whats that? No proof? Really? And whys that? Because its not bad for you, its like alchohol without your kidneys dying. I'd rather have people walking around baked then drunk wouldnt you agree? The only reason the government illegalized marijuana was, take a guess, MONEY. Whats always on the governments mind, MONEY. Everything they do is for the damn money! The prohibition on marijuana must end, if alchohols legal, marijuana must be.

Posted by: Ernesto | May 27, 2012 4:32:17 AM

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