Let the pot wars begin.
An initiative to legalize the possession and sale of marijuana in California officially made the November ballot Wednesday, opening the door to a, ah, high-stakes campaign that the whole country will be watching.
If passed, California would have the most marijuana-friendly laws in the nation, if not the entire world.
How the vote will go depends on whom you ask.
The initiative drive was financed by Richard Lee, a marijuana entrepreneur who put up almost all the $1.3 million it took to qualify the measure for the ballot.
Lee and others in the pot biz argue that the state’s experience with medical marijuana over the past 14 years has cleared a path for direct legalization. A lot has changed since California voters crushed a 1972 ballot measure that would have legalized marijuana, they say, and today’s voters see no problems with allowing adult use and sales.
But opponents argue that the medical marijuana laws, which allow doctors to recommend pot to ease writer’s cramp, have been a disaster for the state, allowing pot dispensaries on every block and boosting the use of marijuana. When the potential problems of the measure come out during the campaign, the measure “will sink like a rock in the North Atlantic,” John Lovell, a lobbyist for law enforcement groups, told the San Francisco Chronicle.
But there are more than a few questions that will have to be answered before the pot advocates can have a victory smoke on Nov. 2.
Right now, the legalization effort has all the momentum. Its supporters are confident and enthusiastic and a Field Poll last April found that 56 percent of Californians supported a generic plan to legalize and tax marijuana.
California’s very visible budget problems could also give a boost to anything that promises to bring more money to the fiscally strapped state.
The legalization campaign also is putting together a professional campaign crew that currently includes veteran Democratic spinmeister Chris Lehane and expects to have as much as $20 million to spend, with much of it coming from the state’s marijuana industry.
Which brings up the first question. Under state law, no one is allowed to make a profit selling medical marijuana, so where are these millions supposed to be coming from? If they’re coming from medical marijuana types, how are they making that money? And if they’re coming from the state’s underground marijuana industry, both the state and the federal government take a dim view of money earned illegally surfacing in legal enterprises, even – or maybe especially – political campaigns.
Then there’s that whole problem of marijuana being a federally controlled – that is, illegal – substance. While the Obama administration has told federal anti-drug types to ignore medical marijuana use, that wink-and-a-nod is not the same as legalizing recreational use. Expect the federal government to take a very dim view of the California initiative.
There’s also a business question. While Prop. 215 made it legal to possess and use medical marijuana, it didn’t stop employers from firing workers who tested positive for the drug, even if it was used for a medical reason.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a 2008 bill that would have protected users of medical marijuana if the drug use didn’t impair their work.
The initiative, however, bans employers from taking any action against pot users who aren’t impaired. Opponents of the measure argue that could conflict with federal “Drug-Free Workplace” laws and bar businesses from receiving federal funds.
That question of what constitutes “impairment” also opens the way for a lawyer’s festival of litigation.
But the question that’s most likely to dominate the opposition’s attacks is the simplest one: even if pot is no worse than booze, why does the state need to legalize another intoxicant?
There are legitimate answers to all those questions and everyone is California will hear them before election day in November.
But the increasingly confident supporters of legalization need to realize that their campaign isn’t going to be a slam dunk. They might want to take a look back at the Prop. 8 campaign to ban gay marriage and see what can happen when one side is convinced from the start that they have the election in the bag.