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Only one of California's pot legalization initiatives has the green that counts

Devout cannabis advocates and social justice reformers believe this may finally be the year that California voters legalize all marijuana, and that optimism has led to a mashup of proposed statewide ballot measures -- more than 20 filed so far.

They vary from a one-sentence constitutional amendment that simply declares California adults are free to “grow, own [and] purchase” marijuana to a 62-page treatise on how to best regulate and tax legal pot.

But just one has attracted the deep-pocketed donors and leading advocacy groups to emerge as the clear favorite to make the November ballot -- the so-called Adult Use of Marijuana Act.

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That was in no small part thanks to the backing of Napster co-founder and former Facebook President Sean Parker, who so far has donated $1 million of the $2.25 million raised by the campaign.

The initiative’s bankroll dwarfs the funds collected by rival marijuana initiative campaigns, and prompted a few to abandon efforts because they lacked the money to compete.

Momentum behind the Parker-backed initiative was further strengthened by an endorsement from Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom. The 2018 Democratic gubernatorial hopeful chaired a blue-ribbon commission to determine the best way to legalize recreational marijuana in California while still limiting children's access, targeting illegal activity and regulating the drug's cultivation and sale.

“We stood down. Basically, he sucked all the funding oxygen out of the air, and we were left high and dry,” Dale Gieringer, director of the state chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said of the Parker donations, tongue firmly in cheek.

Still, these groups take it seriously. “I’d describe it as a hostile buyout by a billionaire ... so small growers are going to be in real trouble," Gieringer added.

Gieringer was involved in a competing marijuana initiative sponsored by the California Coalition for Cannabis Policy Reform, also known as ReformCA. The group suspended its campaign in December after some of its board members opted to join with the Parker-backed initiative.

Of the 20 separate ballot measures to legalize recreational marijuana or expand protections for medical marijuana users and suppliers, six already have failed to qualify, and supporters of another four have effectively abandoned their efforts. None yet have qualified for the ballot.

Lynne Lyman, California director of the Drug Policy Alliance, said her organization held over 100 consultation meetings with local governments, law enforcement agencies, environmental leaders and the cannabis industry as it drafted a version of the legalization. It ultimately joined forces with Parker, who for years has been one of its generous financial supporters.

“It was rough-and-tumble politics -- 2015 was not easy for any of us,” Lyman said. “But in the end, what came out of that was the best initiative to have ever been drafted.”

The California chapter of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People also abandoned its legalization measure.

Alice Huffman, president of the civil rights organization, said after getting "scooped by the Parker initiative" she decided to join his effort, and negotiated for changes to address the NAACP’s top priorities: to end the arrest of thousands of nonviolent cannabis users and to resentence those already convicted of marijuana crimes that would be reduced or rescinded under the initiative.

“I’m not advocating for the use of marijuana. I’m advocating for social justice,” Huffman said. “They gave us the five or six things we asked for.”

The Adult Use of Marijuana Act would allow Californians 21 and older to possess and use up to an ounce of marijuana, prohibit advertising targeting minors and would impose a 15% tax on retail sales of the drug. The cultivation, distribution and sale of recreational marijuana would be regulated by the state, and exporting marijuana out of California would be prohibited.

“We have the largest coalition that’s ever supported a marijuana measure, probably in the country,” said Jason Kinney, spokesman for the Adult Use of Marijuana Act campaign. “We were determined that this measure would be the consensus measure on the ballot regarding regulating marijuana ... not everyone is going to get what they want.”

Along with the money from Parker, the political committee running the campaign for the measure has received $500,000 from Drug Policy Action, (backed by wealthy investor George Soros). The group also got $250,000 from New Approach PAC, formed by family members of the late billionaire insurance executive Peter Lewis of Progressive Corp., state campaign finance records show. Both groups championed legalization campaigns in other states, and Proposition 19, a 2010 pot legalization initiative that California voters rejected 53.5% to 46.5%.

Californians for Sensible Reform, a political committee funded by Weedmaps Inc. in Orange County, also donated $500,000. Weedmaps, founded by Justin Hartfield, maps medical marijuana dispensaries on mobile devices.

Hezekiah Allen of the California Growers Assn., which represents growers and other businesses in the cannabis industry, fears the interests influencing this vote could wipe out California's small marijuana operations and lead to "big marijuana" companies akin to the nation's powerful tobacco giants.

"We don't want there to be a Philip Morris of marijuana," he said.

For a initiative to qualify for the November ballot, supporters must collect 365,880 petition signatures from registered voters. And competition this year is stiff: More than 60 statewide initiative campaigns have been authorized to circulate petitions.

Well-funded campaigns have the edge, since they have the resources to pay $3 or more per signature to hire workers to stand outside stores and on street corners corralling bypassers. For those campaigns relying on volunteers to pass around petitions, the threshold can be daunting.

“We’ll see,” said John Lee of Americans for Policy Reform, which has two initiatives depending solely on volunteers.

“Our measure, by far, has the most support from the cannabis community. We were grassroots from conception," he said."But there’s no money except for the money going to the Sean Parker initiative.”

Lee muttered an expletive when asked if anyone from the Parker-backed initiative had asked for his support.

"They did nothing to reach out to the cannabis community," he said. "In fact, people are talking about counter-campaigns to oppose it."

California was the first state to legalize medical marijuana after voters approved Proposition 215 in 1996. Since then, Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Alaska have legalized recreational use, to varying degrees. Recent opinion polls show Californians are warming to the idea of legalization. A 2015 poll conducted by the Public Policy Institute of California found 53% of Californians supported legalizing recreational use of the drug, a high since polling began.

“There used to be a lot less enthusiasm about legalization,” said Berton Duzy of Simi Valley, statewide coordinator for one of the measures using volunteers and vying for the ballot, the California Cannabis Hemp Initiative. “But we’re finally getting some traction.”

This is Duzy’s fourth effort since 2008.

Other groups are trying to keep the recreational use of pot illegal and ban privately owned medical marijuana cultivation and dispensaries and replace them with government-run operations.

“The vast majority of people have no idea of the dangers of today’s high-potency pot,” said Roger Morgan, a Sacramento-area businessman supporting the initiative. “If we lose, I feel that California and America are never going to be the same.”

Under California law, if two or more initiatives on the same issue qualify for the ballot, the one that receives the most votes trumps all others.

Dale Sky Jones of ReformCA said fighting Parker's measure would have been costly and could have turned negative in a way that would hurt the overall effort.

“We stood down to avoid mutually-assured destruction,” Jones said. “At a certain point, the writing is on the wall. Why fight it? This is something we all want.”

Follow @philwillon on Twitter for the latest news on California politics.


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