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."
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