The field of marijuana initiatives for California’s November ballot has been cut in half in less than two weeks, leaving proponents of the two remaining measures in a narrower race for money and momentum while other drug advocates say the next presidential election in 2016 offers a greater chance for success.
The ballot measures no longer in contention include an initiative by the Drug Policy Alliance, a well-financed national group that led the successful 1996 campaign to legalize medical marijuana in California.
Representatives of the group confirmed that they had pulled their initiative, because of the need for more time to consult with elected officials, public health leaders and law enforcement.
On Feb. 18, in the wake of that news, prominent marijuana activist and grower Ed Rosenthal announced that he was abandoning his ballot measure this year and joining a growing coalition in support of putting forward a “winnable” initiative in 2016.
Rosenthal conceded that political jockeying among marijuana advocates had played a part in his decision to enter the fray of measures looking to legalize recreational marijuana in the Golden State, after voters in Washington and Colorado did so in 2012.
“I didn’t have to get mine on the ballot, I just had to put in enough effort to make it difficult for the (Drug Policy Alliance) to get on the ballot,” Rosenthal said.
Backers of the two remaining initiatives, meanwhile, voiced hope that the smaller field left them more room to maneuver for money and supporters.
“With them (the Drug Policy Alliance) out, the rest of us have a better chance of getting through,” said Bob Bowerman, Sacramento executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or NORML. “We’re going to win this year,” he said.
His group is supporting the Marijuana Control, Legalization and Revenue Act, sponsored by the nonprofit advocacy group Americans For Policy Reform. The measure would legalize limited amounts of marijuana for personal use, cultivation, transportation, purchase or donation, allow hemp cultivation and tax nonmedical marijuana sales. Under the MCLR Act, a new entity called the Cannabis Control Commission would be created for regulation.
The main proponent of the other proposed initiative still in the running is Berton Duzy of the California Cannabis Hemp Initiative. Duzy said he intends to go ahead with his plan, which would legalize marijuana and hemp use, cultivation, possession, distribution and transportation. “It’s good news DPA pulled out,” he said, noting that there was “no way” he would abandon his efforts.
“People who supported them might now support us,” he added.
None of the proposals have qualified for the ballot. To do so, the proponents of each need to gather 504,760 valid signatures of registered voters.
The decisions by the Drug Policy Alliance and Rosenthal to withdraw follow a move by another national reform group to steer clear of California in 2014. Officials with the Marijuana Policy Project, the largest marijuana reform organization in the country, have stated that they think 2016 offers a better chance for success at the ballot box.
Presidential elections typically draw a higher voter turnout, making them a prime window for those seeking to enact law through California’s initiative process. In 2012, the last presidential election, California voter turnout was 79.4 percent, up from 59.6 percent in 2010, a gubernatorial election year, the California Secretary of State reported. In the presidential election of 2008, turnout was 79.4 percent, up from 56.2 percent in 2006.
Turnout is critical because Democrats outnumber Republicans by nearly 15 percentage points in statewide registration — 43.6 percent to 28.7 percent — and Democrats support marijuana legalization more than Republicans, by better than a 2-to-1 margin according to a December 2013 Field Poll.
“The better the turnout, the better the chances,” said the Field Poll’s Mark DiCamillo.
At least one of the withdrawn marijuana measures faced strong opposition from advocates of drug policy overhaul, making enemies of potential allies.
Critics, including Rosenthal and NORML, believed the Drug Policy Alliance’s initiative proposed tax levy and regulatory scheme could adversely affect growers, collectives and licensed distributors.
The DPA’s initiative would have levied a 25 percent sales tax on marijuana sold by licensed businesses.
That tax at the point of sale could encourage a black market in which growers make more money by selling their product illegally to unauthorized dealers, said Suzette Elwell-Scardino, a member of Sacramento’s NORML chapter.
Elwell-Scardino said she is a proponent of the MCLR initiative, and described the competing tax proposal as “the worst thing that could happen to the medical (marijuana) community.”
“We’re actually thrilled (DPA is out),” she said.
The language in DPA’s initiative also would have authorized local governments to ban cannabis storefronts, possibly even those designated as medical clinics, according to Duzy, who opposed the provisions. He also opposed a section of the DPA initiative that would have authorized state regulation of medical marijuana through the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control.
The signature drive for the MCLR effort is its second week and representatives said it has received $500,000 to help cover those costs. The group, which has until late June to submit its signatures, has also commissioned a Los Angeles energy company called Propel Management Group, Inc., a subsidiary of IDS Industries, Inc., to help finance and collect signatures. Duzy, who refiled his proposal after he missed an early deadline, will have until July to gather signatures.
The shifting field of proposals aiming to overhaul California’s marijuana laws comes as public opinion polls show support increasing for marijuana legalization since the 2010 vote on Proposition 19 — the statewide ballot measure on recreational pot — which voters rejected 54 percent to 46 percent.
The December Field Poll found that 55 percent of those surveyed favored marijuana legalization, while less than a third — 31 percent — supported strict enforcement of existing laws.
The survey also noted that the findings “illustrate the huge reversal in public sentiment toward marijuana use” in recent decades. A 1969 Field Poll found that only 13 percent of Californians favored legalization and that 75 percent backed “either strict enforcement of existing marijuana laws against its use or passing even tougher laws.”
Law enforcement remains unconvinced about a broader move to sanction the drug outside of medical use.
A 2012 report by the California Police Chiefs Association opposed legalization, asserting that medical marijuana centers “have been tied to organized criminal gangs, foster large grow operations, and are often multi-million-dollar profit centers.”
Ed’s Note: This story originally appeared in The Press Democrat of Santa Rosa, a content partner of Capitol Weekly, and can be viewed here.