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.
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