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Rough Road to Cannabis Legalization Runs Through California

California Marijuana Legalization Cannabis Now Magazine
Photo by Mark


Rough Road to Cannabis Legalization Runs Through California

The biggest advocates of legalized cannabis are counting on California voters, who authorized the first use of medical marijuana in the U.S., to be the tipping point for the nationwide end of prohibition.

Two problems with that. First, contrary to the popular imagination, the majority of Californians say they’ve never used cannabis. Second, about one-third of residents say legalization isn’t important.

While seven states are gearing up for legalization votes in November, the focus of attention and campaign spending is California. The state’s 39 million people are a market more than twice the combined size of states that already allow recreational sales. A victory in the Golden State could help elevate the social use of cannabis from a subculture whose consumers and suppliers live in fear, to the mainstream of American life. That, of course, is worth billions of dollars.

“Of all legal cannabis in the whole country, California already makes up more than half,” said Troy Dayton, chief executive of The ArcView Group. The Oakland-based investment firm estimates that California accounts for $2.7 billion of the $5.4 billion in legal marijuana sales nationwide.

The state’s market share “will rise to $6.6 billion by 2020, which would mean that California alone would outstrip the value of the entire current U.S. market,” Dayton said. “California is clearly the biggest prize in November in the whole country, by a long shot.”

Californians turned down the last legalization bid in 2010. This year’s drive will be challenged to develop a sense of urgency among voters, most of whom have no personal experience with cannabis.

The state allows voters to bypass legislators to put an issue to a direct popular vote, so long as they collect enough signatures – in this case, 365,880 by July 5 – to qualify for November’s general election.

While several measures have been trying to get on the ballot, the best-funded political action committee is Californians to Control, Regulate and Tax Adult Use of Marijuana While Protecting Children. Supporters raised $2.25 million by early March, according to state campaign finance records. The group collected 25 percent of the necessary signatures within a month after they began circulating petitions, according to the California Secretary of State’s office.

Their proposal, known as the Adult Use of Marijuana Act or AUMA, would allow anyone age 21 or older to possess up to an ounce of marijuana and grow up to six plants. Non-medical sales would be taxed 15 percent. Cultivation would be taxed at $9.25 per ounce of flowers and $2.75 per ounce of leaves. Analysts for the state legislature predict as much as $1 billion a year in state and local tax revenue.

In the California initiative sweepstakes, money talks. And advocates haven’t raised enough yet.

Donations so far are about half as much as was raised the last time Californians voted on the issue, in 2010. That previous initiative, Proposition 19, would have made California the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. Backers outspent opponents by more than 10-1 and still lost, with just 47 percent of the vote.

Still, cannabis has high-profile backers who might put the initiative over the finish line. Leading the list is Sean Parker. The billionaire former president of Facebook, and co-founder of Napster, has put $1 million into support for AUMA. Forbes magazine estimates Parker’s net worth at $2.4 billion. A spokesman for the Parker Foundation, the $600 million philanthropy through which the donations were funneled, didn’t respond to e-mails from Cannabis Now seeking comment.

Other financial backing includes:

  • $500,000 from Drug Policy Action, the political action arm of the Drug Policy Alliance supported by billionaire financier George Soros, who gave $1 million toward the 2010 effort.
  • $500,000 from Justin Hartfield’s Weedmaps, a guide to medical marijuana dispensaries, through its political action committee, Californians for Sensible Reform.
  • $250,000 from New Approach PAC, formed by the heirs of Progressive Insurance founder Peter Lewis.

Even if advocates do raise the necessary cash, they face another challenge: the mood in California. While a record number of Californians support legalization, they don’t see it as a key issue, likes jobs or education. Most Californians haven’t even tried pot, and only a few have used it in the past year, according to polling by the Public Policy Institute of California, a nonpartisan research group.

On the plus side, Californians’ attitude toward legalization has risen slightly since 2010, when proponents and opponents were statistically tied (49 percent for, 48 percent against).  A statewide survey by the PPIC last May found support among adults had risen to 54 percent.

The same poll, however, found that more than half of California adults, who were assured their responses were confidential, said they’d never tried marijuana – 55 percent. Just 15 percent said they’d used marijuana in the past year, while, 29 percent said they it had been more than a year since they’d tried it.

Perhaps a bigger hurdle is that a plurality of Californians view legalization with a shrug. A PPIC poll in December found only 28 percent described legalization as very important, and 21 percent called it somewhat important. Twenty-one percent said it wasn’t too important and 32 percent said it wasn’t at all important.

If Californians aren’t exactly rising up to fight for legalization, they’re not campaigning against it either. While the 2010 initiative was fought by law enforcement groups and the state Chamber of Commerce, no clear opposition has formed yet. And a few political players have lined up in support.

The initiative has been endorsed by Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, the Marijuana Policy Project of California, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), the California State NAACP and the California Medical Association, the largest statewide organization of practicing physicians, representing more than 41,000 doctors.

Parker’s backing for the effort may carry weight because of his connections to other politically active Silicon Valley tycoons, such as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, and LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman. These are people who spread around a lot of money.

Parker, for his part, pledged $5 million to cancer research in 2012. In 2013, he dropped $4.5 million for his wedding in the coastal redwoods of Big Sur, California. In the state’s 2014 election, Parker gave $1 million to  back propositions to issue bonds for water infrastructure and create a rainy day fund (both won).

California’s legalization effort would not mean a wholesale lifting of controls on cannabis. It would affect small amounts, similar to Colorado, Washington, Alaska, Oregon and the District of Columbia, whose voters legalized recreational use of marijuana in 2012 and 2014. The six other states that will vote on allowing adult social use this year are Arizona, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Rhode Island and Vermont, according to ArcView data.

California has the largest economy in the U.S. If it was a separate country, it would rank eighth in the world, ahead of Russia and Italy. That kind of financial power is bound to be felt in Washington, enough to force the hand of federal officials who still classify marijuana as an illegal substance.

As more states move from prohibition to different forms regulated legal markets, ArcView’s Dayton said, Congress will be under increasing pressure to “pass a law that lets states decide what they want to do, and then at that point, that’ll open the floodgates.” Dayton predicts federal decriminalization as soon as 2020 or 2022.

So will California voters see the need to come out for cannabis? For the average person, it’s not as if the cannabis cops are breathing down their necks.

Since 2010, possession of an ounce or less, formerly a misdemeanor, has been downgraded to an infraction, the same penalty as a parking ticket. In many urban areas, the odor of marijuana on the streets is commonplace, and medical dispensaries are thriving. In some cities such as San Francisco, adult marijuana offenses have been made the lowest law enforcement priority.

“It feels as though cannabis is already legal – it’s easy to get a medical card,” ArcView’s Dayton said. Yet “tens of thousands of people are getting arrested for cannabis in this state. There’s a lot more to California than LA and San Francisco.”

Even if the public recognizes the need to change federal law, “people think that legalization is inevitable,’’ Dayton said. “So they don’t feel particularly motivated to make it happen.’’

Will cannabis legalization come to California this year? Tell us in the comments below.



  1. Moonfog

    March 16, 2016 at 7:46 pm

    A lot of people get confused about what this ballot is all about, it is a vote about choice not about if you think its important or not. I would love the option to choose weather or not I can consume something versus not being able to downright and getting fined/jail time for it. I have not voted in my life but I will register just to vote on this matter. It takes a stroke of your wrist to say yes, I personally hope this passes this year

  2. John Thomas

    March 16, 2016 at 6:14 pm

    This seems like an attempt to downplay AUMA’s chances, when, right now, they’re looking good. – I wonder why?

    Most of people in Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Alaska weren’t marijuana consumers, either, yet, all those states achieved legalization. From the article:

    >>>”Californians turned down the last legalization bid in 2010.”

    Not exactly. – In it’s net effect, Prop 19 did not fail. Polls showed 52 percent of Californians approved of passing this initiative to re-legalize marijuana. Then, with a triple-whammy October surprise, this approval was beaten down to a die-hard core of 47 percent, causing, technically, a close loss.

    But one of those surprises was Governor Schwarzenegger’s downgrading of marijuana possession from a misdemeanor to an infraction. In all his years as Governor, Schwarzenegger vetoed every marijuana reform legislation that crossed his desk. The only reason he did this was to take the steam out of the support for Prop 19.

    It worked and Prop 19 was narrowly defeated. But Prop 19 support gave reform a great victory. Reducing marijuana possession to an infraction removes the worst aspect of the fraudulent prohibition – the “criminal” record. This victory moved us well down the road toward a rational marijuana policy.

    Prop 19 also raised awareness around the country, and the world, of the insane destruction of marijuana prohibition. This success could not be ignored by the media, and caused national support for re-legalization to pass 50 percent for the first time.

    The campaign also learned important lessons, especially in getting support from other groups, as they did with the labor unions and the NAACP.

    It’s tremendously important for California to re-legalize marijuana this November. “Medical excuse” marijuana is mostly a fraud and cannot carry marijuana policy anymore. – I find the blase attitude of this author strange in publication called, “Cannabis Now.”

    • Superstorm250

      March 21, 2016 at 3:35 pm

      John Thomas, you’re right and I also find it strange that this article is trying to downplay AUMA’s chances and only focusing on the negative in regards to California’s attempt at legalization this year.

    • Superstorm250

      March 21, 2016 at 4:15 pm

      John Thomas, you’re right and I also find it strange that this article is trying to downplay AUMA’s chances and only focusing on the negative in regards to California’s attempt at legalization this year, considering that this is a pro cannabis site. The author also tried to make it seem like there isn’t much support for legalization in California because of that one poll which said that one third of California voters think that legalization is not at all important.

      But just because they think that there are issues that are more important than legalization doesn’t mean that they don’t support it and plan on voting against it. And the latest polls confirm that, the latest poll that was released by the Probolsky Research Institute (and was also not included in this article) showed support at 60%, and that one was released after the poll which said that legalization was not at all important.

      I also didn’t get why the author was trying to make it seem like AUMA will be underfunded and that most Californians aren’t cannabis consumers. I know that the electorate will likely be made up more of non consumers, but I think that most people still don’t feel comfortable telling a polling agency that they are a consumer, especially when the agency promises that the police won’t be informed, that probably makes them feel like they will inform the police.

      And this wasn’t the only pro cannabis media outlet to downplay legalization in California, did you see the article about Adam Carolla over at The Cannabist yet? Carolla is a comedian and TV show host who also has his own podcast, and he said that he doesn’t think that California will legalize this November because Californians are “super-stupid,” are afraid of third and fourth hand smoke, and love bossing each other around by making or keeping rules that limit freedom and fun. The Cannabist was headlining the article like it was a political expert’s opinion, when it was actually just the opinion of some comedian who likely doesn’t know much of anything about marijuana policy, isn’t really engaged in the cannabis reform movement, and actually said that he prefers to drink alcohol than consume cannabis at the end of the day. Check it out if you haven’t read it yet.

  3. AkivaBenShlomo

    March 16, 2016 at 7:21 am

    Is anyone signing up the homeless for voter ID’s? Man, if we could get a million of them on the books what a voting block.

    • Pamela Martini

      March 17, 2016 at 8:06 am

      residence is required to vote

  4. Rupert Baxter

    March 15, 2016 at 11:38 pm

    Wait, are you seriously comparing money Prop 19 raised over a whole election cycle with money raised for AUMA through just March?

    • Pamela Martini

      March 17, 2016 at 8:05 am

      10 million is what AUMA COST… also has the missing license numbers, 5 & 9 in the state structure which are effective in 7 years (good for the small farmers)….
      AUMA is it….get used to the Parker Plan- it’s a done deal….and it reinstates 215

  5. Evidence-based Shaman

    March 15, 2016 at 11:34 am

    I’m not very good at predicting stuff, but my hope is that there is no legalization this year.

    I have no financial interests to protect, just not thrilled with anything I’ve seen so far.

    • Superhaze420

      March 16, 2016 at 12:22 pm

      So you’d rather set the entire cannabis reform movement back in such an important year instead just because you’re not thrilled with any of the initiatives? Yeah that totally makes sense, let’s just continue to let the police harass and sometimes even arrest cannabis consumers for profit because some people just aren’t thrilled with the proposed law, that’s really smart.

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