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Just Say Now

Californians will vote this fall on whether to legalize marijuana — and the measure has a real shot at passing

August 18, 2010 8:00 AM ET
Just Say Now
Illustration by Victor Juhasz

In 1996, California became the first state in the nation to legalize marijuana for medical use. Now, with a ballot initiative up for a vote in November, it could become the first to ratify an even more striking landmark: the legalization of pot for recreational use. Proposition 19 — the Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis Act of 2010 — treats pot much like alcohol after the repeal of Prohibition, allowing each city and county to decide whether it wants to approve and tax commercial sales of the drug. And regardless of what local jurisdictions do, any Californian over 21 could possess up to an ounce of marijuana, smoke it in private or at licensed establishments, and grow a small amount for personal consumption. "We're not requiring anyone to do anything," says Jim Wheaton, a prominent First Amendment lawyer who drafted the ballot initiative. "We're just repealing the laws that prevent it."

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The driving force behind the measure is Richard Lee, the 47-year-old activist and former Aerosmith roadie who helped spark the rise of medical marijuana in California. As founder of Oaksterdam University, the country's first self-proclaimed "Cannabis College," Lee put up $1.3 million to gather the 430,000 signatures needed to put the legalization initiative on the ballot this fall. Leading advocates of drug reform urged him to wait until 2012, when Barack Obama is up for re-election and young voters will be more likely to turn out. But in March, after a poll he commissioned showed that 54 percent of Californians support legalization, Lee insisted on moving forward.

This article appeared in the September 2, 2010 issue of Rolling Stone. The issue is available in the online archive.

Lee, who took up pot 20 years ago to dull the pain from an accident that left him paralyzed from the waist down, believes that legalizing marijuana can help fix California's devastated economy. In his hometown of Oakland, the city council recently approved permits for four indoor marijuana plantations the size of football fields, in a high-profile bid to treat pot like any other legitimate business. "I'm trying to get rid of that black-market culture," Lee says. His campaign for the Tax Cannabis initiative smartly markets it as a "common-sense solution to our broken budget," arguing that legalization will provide the state with as much as $1.4 billion a year in tax revenues — roughly equivalent to the state's citrus industry, and more than either alcohol or cigarettes.

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The ballot initiative has provoked a sharp split in California politics. Nearly every major elected official, including many top Democrats, has come out against it. Sen. Dianne Feinstein signed the ballot argument opposing the initiative, and gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brown has gone to absurd lengths to try to distance himself from the measure. "We've got to compete with China," he recently declared. "And if everybody's stoned, how the hell are we going to make it?"

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But it will take more than such over-the-top scare tactics to derail the measure. A notable array of unions, civil rights groups and law-enforcement officials has lined up to support legalization, and even Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has said that "it's time for a debate" on the issue. Polls show the measure has a real shot at passing, and Lee has recruited an impressive team of veteran political operatives, environmental advocates and union organizers to manage the campaign. Taken together, it's the most effective and well-organized campaign to end marijuana prohibition since the drug was declared illegal in 1937.

"We've released a conveyer belt of endorsements showing the breadth and depth of our support," says Dan Newman, an experienced Democratic strategist who is working for Tax Cannabis. "It's not just a bunch of dreadlocked stoners."

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