search for revenue, backers of the first major statewide initiative to legalize marijuana for personal use - and allow counties to tax and regulate the drug - say they're preparing to get the matter on the November 2010 ballot.
"We think the tides have turned," said Richard Lee, the executive director of Oaksterdam University, a major medical marijuana dispensary and advocacy group in Oakland, and
a founder of TaxCannabis2010.org, sponsor of the initiative.
He said polls showing voters' support for legalization and taxation of the drug, combined with the financial strains of a recession, mean that "this will be a landmark opportunity that will generate interest and funds nationwide." If successful, Lee said, the initiative will be viewed as a watershed - "a first step in changing federal law."
The initiative that Lee's group is preparing to circulate calls for legalization of small amounts of marijuana for personal possession by adults 21 and older, and allows cities and counties the option of regulating sales and cultivation. The legal amount would be 1 ounce for personal possession, with cultivation allowed in a space no larger than 5 feet by 5 feet.
The move comes as other legislative efforts to legalize marijuana are beginning to gain traction, including a special July election in Oakland to create a category for cannabis taxes, and hearings this fall on a bill by state Assemblyman Tom Ammiano to decriminalize the substance.
With California counties and cities facing huge cuts in critical programs because of the state's $24.3 billion budget deficit - supporters of efforts to legalize and tax marijuana have seized on a new and potentially potent financial argument to take a new look at the issue.
Billions for California
Lee's group argues that legalization could generate billions of dollars in annual sales tax revenues for California, "so we can finally start funding what matters most: jobs, health care, education," while putting dwindling law enforcement dollars to work on high-priority violent crime and anti-gang offensives.
TaxCannabis2010.org, which also will have a political action committee arm to raise money, plans to submit the initiative to Attorney General Jerry Brown next month for the summary and title oversight required by law. Lee said the group plans to begin gathering signatures in August and fully expects to get the required 650,000 signatures by January to qualify for the November 2010 ballot.
Already, he said, the group has ambitious plans to hire paid signature gatherers, and to use Internet organizing and fundraising - lessons he said learned from the Obama presidential campaign - as well as its PAC to seize on what appears to be a recent shift in public opinion on legalization.
Even if the initiative is successful in California, marijuana would still be illegal under federal law, although backers hope a change here would lead to a change in federal law.
The move to go before voters underscores how the state's budget crisis could help drive what political observers say is an increasingly sophisticated, Internet-savvy and business-oriented approach to the effort to legalize pot.
"It's not the complete answer to the state budget crisis - but it's a piece of the puzzle that could be put into place relatively easily," said Bruce Mirken of the Marijuana Policy Project, which studies legalization issues. "That said, there's an ongoing discussion about how to get that done as quickly as possible - and whether a ballot initiative is the way to go."
Oakland ballot measure
Other marijuana-related legislation is making its way before state voters. Oakland voters will in weeks begin voting on a July special election mail-in ballot that includes Measure F, which would make their city the first in the nation to establish a new tax rate for "cannabis businesses." If the measure is approved, Oakland medical marijuana businesses, which generate an estimated $20 million annually in sales - and are now charged at the general tax rate of $1.20 per $1,000 gross receipts - would see that rate raised to $18 per $1,000, a 15-fold increase.
The measure was supported enthusiastically by Lee and overseers of other city medical marijuana dispensaries as one that could contribute more than $400,000 a year to city coffers while also giving the medical marijuana businesses an increasingly mainstream profile in a major city.
Their efforts have won the support of Councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan, who sponsored Oakland's Measure D, which mandates that arrests for personal possession of marijuana be given the lowest priority in law enforcement matters.
While an increasing number of public officials, including Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, have urged study of legalization, there remains deep opposition among groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which argues it would multiply problems related to substance use and come with heavy health concerns.
Opposition and progress
Even proponents of decriminalization warn that taking an initiative before state voters probably will face huge and expensive opposition.
Quintin Mecke, communications director for state Sen. Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, said the legislator's bill, AB390, calling for decriminalization of marijuana and taxation and regulation of the drug, is expected to be up for hearings later this year. "The general consensus is that we're making a lot of progress," he said.
But a ballot initiative has the potential to be more polarizing, because it will "limit the ability to craft (a measure) through legislative process" and doesn't allow for as much flexibility, he said.