SEATTLE — A coalition of investors and strategists, which played a key role in passing most of the legislation to reform drug laws nationwide since 1996, has decided not to put a pot initiative on the ballot in California this year but will wait to push for legalization until 2016.
Signature-gathering efforts for at least two additional pot measures are circulating, but they do not appear to have the high-profile financial backing needed. So the coalition's decision makes it less likely that marijuana will be legalized in California in the near future.
The group was instrumental in legalizing recreational pot in Washington and Colorado and medical marijuana in Massachusetts in 2012, and it is supporting efforts in November to pass a recreational pot measure in Oregon and a medical cannabis measure in Florida.
The coalition includes the Drug Policy Alliance, which has been involved in drug reform for nearly two decades and is supported by billionaire financier George Soros. It also is allied with the late philanthropist Peter Lewis, who spent $65 million over the last 15 years to change pot laws. Lewis died in November.
The decision not to go forward in 2014 was "very close" and "one that came down to the wire," said Graham Boyd, counsel to Lewis and a leader in working to legalize marijuana in California. "We see this as a trial run or a dress rehearsal for 2016."
After extensive polling, the group had put together a campaign staff, drafted the Control, Regulate and Tax Marijuana Act, registered it with the California secretary of state and was poised to gather signatures to get the initiative on the November ballot.
If passed, the measure would have allowed those 21 and older to possess, purchase and use less than an ounce of marijuana and to grow up to six plants for personal use. It also would have established a 25% tax on marijuana sales to be distributed in support of education, drug and alcohol treatment, local government, law enforcement and environmental restoration for the damage done by illegal pot growing.
But with an April 18 deadline looming to hand in signatures, the group halted its efforts. In an interview Monday, Boyd and Drug Policy Alliance Executive Director Ethan Nadelmann said they needed more time for outreach to elected officials, public health leaders and law enforcement — a strategy that worked in Washington state.
Money is also an issue. At least $10 million, they said, would be needed to run a successful campaign over California's vast terrain and costly media markets.
"We believe the best way to go forward with any state ballot initiative is to have a strong funding base in place before launching the campaign," Boyd said. "It is certainly true that Peter Lewis' death made that a much more difficult process to do in the time we had."
But Nadelmann also acknowledged that legalization's growing popularity could mean a measure might succeed on a tighter budget. In fact, promising poll results were what led the coalition to seriously consider a 2014 run at all.
Originally, the plan was to wait until 2016, largely because presidential elections tend to bring out younger voters, who support drug law reform more strongly than the older electorate that shows up for midterm elections.
Lewis had funded an extensive research effort after Proposition 19 failed four years ago to figure out what went wrong. That measure, which cost about $4.2 million, led in the polls going up to election day but lost, about 54% to 46%.
In mid-October, the group polled one more time. "We didn't imagine that 2014 would be viable," Boyd said. "But it showed that support in 2014 for a well-drafted measure would be in the mid-50s. …That led me to sit down with Peter and DPA and say, 'Do we want to reconsider the 2014 option?'"
Over the next month, the group drafted the measure, put together a political plan, conducted another round of polling and reached out to elected officials and opinion leaders. Lewis was "leaning strongly toward moving forward," Boyd said. "But, unfortunately, that was less than a week before he passed away. We continued the exploration process, but it was a difficult context without him there."
Nadelmann said that the group's internal polling in California showed that support for the basic idea of regulating and taxing marijuana was approaching 60%. "Even among people ambivalent or opposed," he said, "there's also what you see with marriage equality — a sense of inevitability. The other thing is that the opposition, people who are strongly opposed, has just dropped remarkably."
The coalition is backing a 2014 effort in Oregon, but the political calculus in the Beaver State is far different from that of California's midterm election. Voter interest will be high. Gov. John Kitzhaber will be up for reelection, as will U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley. Both are Democrats. Proponents of same-sex marriage have gathered enough signatures for a measure to qualify for the November ballot, although they have yet to turn them in.
And in 2012, when faced with a rambling legalization ballot measure that called marijuana "a 'herb bearing seed' given to humanity in Genesis 1:29," about 47% of Oregon voters still voted "yes."