Just Say Now

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

Illustration by Victor Juhasz
By |

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."

MarijuanAmerica: How the green revolution sweeping across the nation is changing the weed business forever

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.

As the World Burns

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?"

Sex, Drugs, and the Biggest Cybercrime of All Time

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."

The push to legalize pot wouldn't have been possible without the widespread acceptance of medical marijuana. Pot — which is now distributed to an estimated 500,000 patients at hundreds of dispensaries across California — has become the state's largest cash crop, with annual sales estimated at $14 billion.

Indeed, many drug-policy reformers always intended for medical marijuana to be the first step on the road to full legalization. "There was a hope and a belief that this would soften up the opposition to broader legalization of marijuana," says Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. "A growing number of people are beginning to see dispensaries as assets to the community. They're taking marijuana off the streets and paying taxes. People see that this can be effectively regulated."

The main coalition supporting Tax Cannabis operates out of a bright and modern storefront in downtown Oakland that once housed Oaksterdam University, which has trained some 12,000 students in how to grow, distribute and market marijuana. The effort marks the first time that labor unions, civil rights groups and drug-policy reformers have worked together, side by side, in the same initiative campaign. Their main message is to emphasize that legalization isn't about catering to the needs of potheads — it's about rescuing the state from its $19 billion deficit and putting tens of thousands of unemployed Californians to work. "We don't see Prop 19 as a marijuana issue," says Dan Rush, a union organizer with the United Food and Commercial Workers who is lining up endorsements for the ballot initiative. "We see it as a jobs creator and tax-revenue generator."

Armed with union mailers that describe cannabis as "California's newest union-friendly green industry," Rush has secured an endorsement from the Western States Council of the UFCW, which boasts 200,000 members. He's also won support from unions representing longshoremen, communication workers and painters, and he hopes to get the security workers, machinists and public employees onboard soon. But convincing the state's political establishment to take a public stance on legalization has been a challenge. "When I'm talking one-on-one with union people or Democratic Party people, everybody loves the idea," says Rush, an old-school organizer who owns three Harleys and sports a dozen tattoos. "But they're afraid to come out front." It's his job, he says, "to make this industry palatable by illuminating its potential."

But Rush and other proponents of legalization aren't relying on economic arguments alone to win over undecided voters. "There's no one bumper sticker that will work," says Chris Lehane, a high-profile Democratic strategist and former top adviser in the Clinton administration who's advising the campaign. Legalization, advocates point out, will also reduce a host of societal costs: the needless arrests each year of some 78,000 Californians for marijuana-related offenses, the overcrowding of the state prison system, the havoc wreaked by Mexican drug cartels that rely on pot for 60 percent of their revenue, the inability of police spread thin by budget cuts to focus on violent crimes. Backers also emphasize that legalizing and regulating marijuana will actually help keep pot away from kids, who now say it's easier to buy weed than booze. "Swing voters, in their gut, completely understand that banning marijuana outright has been a total failure," says Stephen Gutwillig, the California director of the Drug Policy Alliance, who has sat in on focus groups of women from suburban Los Angeles. "They know it makes no sense to treat marijuana differently than alcohol or tobacco. But we're relatively early in the social discourse about how to fix this problem. There's a comfort level that has to develop very quickly for Prop 19 to pass."

Despite the early momentum behind Prop 19, ballot initiatives are a dicey game in California. Progressive activists in the state are still smarting from the passage of Prop 8, which banned gay marriage in 2008 thanks to a huge influx of money from the Christian right. To defeat the measure, religious conservatives effectively targeted black voters and ethnic groups — an approach that could be replicated in the fight over legalization.

The campaign against pot — known as Public Safety First — is being managed by Wayne Johnson, a prominent Republican strategist in Sacramento with ties to the religious right. So far, there's no evidence that churches are devoting significant resources to defeat the issue, as they did in the battle over gay marriage. But opponents are employing the same sort of fearmongering tactics. Save California, a "family values" group that fought to ban gay marriage, is running ads that claim pot is "50 to 70 percent more cancer-causing than cigarettes." John Lovell, a 65-year-old lobbyist for law-enforcement groups in Sacramento, alleges that Prop 19 will create "a preferred status for marijuana in the workplace," allowing Californians to possess, use and sell pot on the job — an effective sound bite that happens to be completely untrue. Opponents also hope to bury the measure in confusing technicalities: Public Safety First calls it a "jumbled legal nightmare" and claims it would cause chaos in California, allowing bus drivers to show up high for work and jeopardizing $40 billion in federal contracts.

As in the battle over gay marriage, black voters are also emerging as a key swing constituency. Alice Huffman, the influential head of the California NAACP, endorsed Prop 19 after a recent study revealed that African-Americans in the state are two to three times as likely as whites to be arrested for marijuana offenses. But in recent months, a black preacher from Sacramento named Ron Allen has risen from obscurity to become the most outspoken public opponent of legalization. A former-drug-addict-turned-anti-drug-crusader, Allen appears regularly on major outlets like Fox News and visits black churches to hammer home a simple message: that marijuana is the root of all social evil.

"They might say it's not a gateway drug, but I want you to know, it is a gateway drug," he thunders to the congregation at First Tabernacle Baptist Church on a recent Sunday morning — halfway through a tour he's making of 100 churches statewide. "I started with marijuana and graduated to crack cocaine."

Allen insists that backers of Prop 19 want to "legalize all drugs," including crack and Ecstasy, even though such substances will remain illegal if the initiative passes. On his website, he claims that 4,100 congregations support his anti-marijuana position, but he refuses to make the list public. He also boasts of holding three doctorates from Sacramento Theological Seminary, including one in evangelism. He calls Huffman, a longtime civil rights leader in California, "Enemy No. 1 to the black church."

Allen owes his prominence to Alexandra Datig, a PR consultant and recovering addict in Los Angeles, who promoted him as a leading spokesman against legalization. The two met through Californians for Drug Free Youth, after Datig had quit her job as a high-profile prostitute for Heidi Fleiss and co-written a book, You'll Never Make Love in This Town Again, chronicling her wild sexcapades with the likes of Jack Nicholson. These days she denounces drugs with the evangelical fervor of a born-again believer, renouncing Prop 19 as "un-American" and insisting that indoor marijuana cultivation will spread a killer fungus known as aspergillus.

The debunked claims made by figures like Datig and Allen — which so far appear to have done little to sway the black community — raise questions about the credibility of Prop 19's opponents. "To use Bishop Allen as a barometer, I think they're really grasping at straws," says the NAACP's Huffman. "It leads me to believe they don't have much of a campaign." Other advocates of legalization are even more blunt. "Not so long ago, the pro-pot people used to be the nutty ones," says Doug Linney, a longtime environmental organizer who serves as the lead political consultant for Tax Cannabis. "Now it's just the opposite."

The black community isn't the only pivotal constituency in the battle for legalization: The state's prison guards are also likely to play a key role. Two years ago, when reform advocates in California placed an initiative on the ballot that would have relaxed penalties for nonviolent drug offenders, the measure seemed very likely to pass. Major donors like George Soros funded the campaign, and the initiative led in the polls for much of the year. Then the California Correctional Peace Officers Association — one of the most powerful unions in the state — spent $1 million on an ad campaign featuring Dianne Feinstein denouncing the initiative as a "drug dealer's bill of rights." In the end, the measure wound up losing by 19 points on Election Day. "If big money comes in on the other side," says Gutwillig of the Drug Policy Alliance, "it's very hard to win a reform of this nature."

For now, though, the prison guards are staying out of the fight. The union appears to have less of a stake in the measure than it did in the 2008 campaign, which directly threatened to reduce jobs in the prison industry. "At this time, we haven't taken a position on Proposition 19, and it's not certain that we will," says JeVaughn Baker, a spokesman for the union. The Tax Cannabis campaign, meanwhile, has won the endorsement of many prominent cops in the state, who argue that legalization will curb drug violence and free up cash-strapped police departments to focus on more serious crimes. "Like an increasing number of law enforcers, I have learned that most bad things about marijuana — especially the violence made inevitable by an obscenely profitable black market — are caused by the prohibition, not by the plant," retired San Jose police chief Joseph McNamara wrote in a recent op-ed for The San Francisco Chronicle.

This law-and-order approach plays well with soccer moms in Los Angeles, who often provide the swing vote in California politics. "Like most things in politics these days, it's going to come down to the conflicted baby boomers," says Bill Carrick, a prominent Democratic consultant based in Los Angeles. But leading Democrats are still shying away from the measure, fearing that legalization will be used against them as a wedge issue. At recent meetings, both the California Democratic Party and the California Labor Federation voted to remain neutral on Prop 19. "The Democratic point of view, which is understandable, is that we don't want to be seen as the party of drugs and dope," says Carrick.

In fact, advocates argue, the campaign to legalize pot could actually have the opposite effect, sparking a "burnout turnout" that will boost Democrats in November. When asked how the party can get first-time Obama voters to show up this fall, the 78-year-old chairman of the California Democratic Party, John Burton, gave a one-word answer: "Pot." Indeed, polls indicate that legalization could lure Obama voters to the polls like no other issue. The progressive blog Firedoglake and Students for Sensible Drug Policy recently launched a "Just Say Now" campaign, both online and through college campuses, to turn out young voters. And Nate Silver, the noted political statistician, believes that polling on pot, which shows legalization with a 50-50 chance of passing, may undercount its true support. In a reverse of the so-called Bradley Effect, in which white voters support black candidates in public but vote against them in private, voters may denounce legalization to pollsters but quietly support it on Election Day. Silver dubs this the "Broadus Effect" in honor of Calvin Broadus, better known as Snoop Dogg.

Like most ballot initiatives, the fight to legalize pot will ultimately come down to money, especially since neither side has much funding right now. In the first six months of this year, Public Safety First raised only $41,000 — most of it from the California Police Chiefs Association — and spent all but $19,000. Tax Cannabis raised considerably more, though it still has only $62,000 in the bank, a paltry number in California politics. (By comparison, the campaigns for and against gay marriage spent a total of $80 million.) Richard Lee, who launched the legalization measure, is largely tapped out, and it's unclear if big-money supporters like George Soros will join the fray. "I don't see anybody jumping in big-time tomorrow," says Nadelmann, who has coordinated funding for previous drug-reform efforts. "But funders are keeping their ears open. So they're not saying no."

In an attempt to lure big money, Tax Cannabis recently enlisted Marjan Philhour, a major Democratic Party fundraiser in San Francisco, as the campaign's finance chair. To have a good shot at passage, according to one high-ranking Democratic operative, the group needs to raise at least $10 million. Ideally, strategists say they would like to raise $15 million — double what was spent to legalize medical marijuana in 1996 — which would enable them to run TV ads statewide in the final month of the campaign.

If the measure does pass, proponents believe that the White House will not challenge it in court — much as New York was allowed to stop enforcing alcohol laws in 1923, a decade before Congress ended Prohibition. "I would hope the Obama administration and Attorney General Holder would see this as an example of the gen­ius of the Founding Fathers, who looked at the states as 'crucibles of democracy,' " says Wheaton, who drafted the ballot initiative. For now, however, advocates concede that Prop 19 faces an uphill climb. "We're fighting almost a hundred years of lies," says Mauricio Garzon, the campaign's director. Similar measures failed in Alaska and Nevada twice in the past decade — as well as 38 years ago in California, when the initiative was coincidentally also named Prop 19. "The burden of proof is always on the yes side to change the status quo," says Mark DiCamillo, director of California's Field Poll.

Yet proponents of legalization are cautiously optimistic about the current political climate. "If it fails, it fails temporarily," says Dan Rush, who predicts victory this year. "We'll take what we've learned from this initiative and create one that can win on the 2012 ballot." And if Democrats lose their congressional majority in November, as some are predicting, perhaps they can go to California and smoke away the pain.

x