Marijuana advocates debate a new legalization effort
The drive to put another marijuana legalization initiative on the California ballot took a step forward Saturday when activists from across the state squeezed into a crowded conference center here to launch the debate over writing the next ballot measure.
The campaign for Proposition 19, which lost 54% to 46% in November, wants to start drafting a new initiative in the spring and to complete it by July, turning then to the expensive and time-consuming task of building support and qualifying it for the November 2012 ballot.
Saturday’s conference, sponsored by the California chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, was aimed at reaching out to marijuana legalization activists, medical marijuana growers and dispensary operators, many of whom opposed the last measure.
“We knew there was a lot of dissatisfaction,” said Dale Gieringer, the organization’s California director who organized the conference, the first in more than a decade. “A lot of people felt excluded because the writing process of Proposition 19 was very closed.”
The initiative was spearheaded and financially backed by Richard Lee, a successful Oakland medical marijuana entrepreneur who made the key decisions on the legal language. It drew opposition from some prominent defense lawyers who said it did not go far enough to decriminalize marijuana, and from some operators of medical marijuana dispensaries who worried that it would undercut their lucrative businesses and lead to more bans on stores.
The initiative would have allowed adults 21 and older to possess and grow marijuana, and it would have authorized cities and counties to pass ordinances to legalize sales.
“Truly, this is a planning exercise,” Dale Sky Jones, the spokeswoman for the Proposition 19 campaign, told the crowd at the David Brower Center near the University of California campus. “We’re here to hear you. This is the building process.”
The conference drew about 300 attendees, including Yamileth Bolanos, a dispensary operator from Los Angeles. Like others in the business who came to the event, she said she wants to be sure that medical marijuana is not undercut by a legalization initiative. “We shouldn’t be stomped on or used as a stepping stone to get to where they want to go,” she said.
Jones said medical marijuana patients are crucial to the success of any initiative because they can reach out to voters to dispel myths about marijuana. “It’s largely going to be the messaging through the medical community and those that love them that can put this over the top,” she said.
The campaign intends to create a broad-based committee to oversee the next initiative, replacing the singular role played by Lee, who did not attend the conference. “It’s not about him anymore. It’s about the issue, which is what he always wanted,” Jones said.
Jones said the campaign has not yet named the committee because it is does not want to create an early target for critics. “When you start planting your flag in the ground, people find reasons not to stand under that flag,” she said.
The state Legislature’s two most marijuana-friendly lawmakers dropped in to tell activists they will continue to press for changes in Sacramento. State Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) noted that he introduced a bill last week to prevent employers from firing most medical marijuana patients who test positive for the drug and pledged to reintroduce a bill to allow California farmers to grow industrial hemp. Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco) said that he would try again to move his bill to legalize marijuana sales, but that he was also considering a piecemeal approach.
Although Saturday’s conference offered activists a chance to air their views, it also underscored how difficult it will be to write a measure that pleases the diverse community. Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, which has played a major role in California’s drug reform initiatives, warned that activists were going to have to balance their principles with what will be possible to pass. “All I can think is, God, this is complicated,” he said.
Dennis Peron, who led the campaign to pass the medical marijuana initiative in 1996 and has become an irritant to legalization activists, said that activists should focus on bringing medical marijuana to other states. Peron believes anyone who uses marijuana is doing it for medical reasons, so anyone who wants to get it legally in California already can. “We’ve got to do it for the other people, not just for ourselves. These people are all about money,” he said.
Jeff Jones, who was a co-proponent of Proposition 19 along with Lee, said he is anticipating that the process of shaping the next initiative will be arduous and heated. “I view the drafting phase as a little like the British Parliament, a lot of screaming and yelling,” he said.