California poised to vote on fully legalizing pot

Source: Seattle Times 3.24.10 – Fourteen years after California decided marijuana could be used as medicine and ignited a national movement, the state is likely to vote on whether to take a decisive step into the vanguard of drug liberalization: legalizing the weed for fun and profit.

On Wednesday, Los Angeles elections officials must turn in their count of valid signatures collected in the county on a statewide legalization initiative. The number is virtually certain to be enough to qualify the initiative for the November ballot, according to a tally kept by state election officials.

That again will make California the focal point of the long-stewing argument over marijuana legalization, a debate likely to be a high-dollar brawl between adversaries.

Proponents will cite the financial and social cost of enforcing pot prohibition and argue that marijuana is not as dangerous and addictive as tobacco or alcohol. Opponents will highlight marijuana-linked crimes, increasing teenage use and the harm the weed causes some smokers.

But the debate also will play out against a cultural landscape that has changed substantially over the years, with marijuana moving from dark street corners to neon-lit suburban boutiques. In the months since the Obama administration ordered agents to lay off dispensaries, hundreds have opened.

The measure’s supporters hope this dynamic will shift the debate, allowing them to persuade voters to replace prohibition with controlled sales that could be taxed to help California’s cities and counties. “They already accept that it’s out there. They want to see a smart strategy,” said Chris Lehane, a top strategist for the legalization campaign.

But John Lovell, a Sacramento lobbyist for law-enforcement groups, said he believes voters will reject that argument. “Why on earth would you want to add yet another mind-altering substance to the legal array?” he asked.

Washington proposal

California is not alone in weighing legalization. Several state legislatures have considered bills, and two other Western states may vote on initiatives. A campaign in Washington hopes to put a legalization measure on the November ballot. And a Nevada measure being pushed for 2012 would allow retail stores.

The Washington proposal would remove state criminal penalties for adults who possess, grow and distribute marijuana — no matter how much. Criminal penalties for juveniles who possess marijuana and for adults who provide it to juveniles would remain in place. Driving under the influence of the drug would still be a violation.

“I am confident we have a really good shot at getting the signatures,” said Philip Dawdy, campaign director for Sensible Washington, the group trying to put the measure on the ballot.

Dawdy said the group has about 1,300 volunteer signature-gatherers and needs to collect 241,152 valid signatures by July 2.

It’s “a little less predictable” to gather signatures with an all-volunteer staff, Dawdy said, but the group has had success across the state. He said one signature-gatherer working the Bainbridge Island ferry run collected 800 signatures in 21/2 weeks and that a Bremerton head shop collected 400 by putting a copy of the petition on the counter.

“We’re active all over town and all over the state,” Dawdy said.

Gathering signatures

The 10-page California initiative would allow anyone 21 or older to possess, share and transport up to one ounce for personal use and to grow up to 25 square feet per residence or parcel. It would allow local governments, but not the state, to authorize the cultivation, transportation and sale of marijuana and to impose taxes.

By Tuesday, most local election officials had reviewed petitions circulated in their counties, reporting more than 412,000 valid signatures. To make the ballot, the measure needs 433,971. Los Angeles County, where 142,246 signatures were collected, is expected to put it over the top.

All the major candidates for governor have shunned the initiative, including Democrat Jerry Brown, who as governor in 1975 signed a law that dramatically reduced marijuana penalties.

Polls have shown that a slim majority of California voters want to legalize marijuana. Both sides will shape their arguments to take aim at wavering voters. Supporters say the undecideds are primarily women in their 30s and 40s with children.

The hope is to persuade these voters that it’s time for a fresh approach to a drug that is a fact of life in California. The wisest plan, supporters argue, is to allow cities and counties to regulate sales and impose taxes to help them escape their budget disasters.

Two independent pollsters, Mark Baldassare of the Public Policy Institute of California and Mark DiCamillo of the Field Poll, said the state’s budget woes may heighten the measure’s appeal.

“Whether voters are really there, whether they want to legalize marijuana, I would probably tend to say no, but given the drastic state of the budget, I don’t know,” said DiCamillo, calling the issue a wild card. “The climate may actually help it a bit.”

Opponents will cite a national survey that found an increase in teens trying marijuana last year. And they are emphasizing the danger of drugged drivers. In a column, Ventura County Sheriff Bob Brooks cited a 2007 accident in which a driver high on marijuana crashed into a stopped vehicle, killing its driver and critically injuring a Highway Patrol officer.

Seattle Times staff reporter Katherine Long and Seattle Times archives contributed to this report.



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