California voters could decide whether to legalize marijuana in November after supporters announced Monday that they have more than enough signatures to ensure that it qualifies for the ballot.
The petition drive has collected more than 680,000 signatures, said Richard Lee, the measure's main proponent, about 57% more than the 433,971 needed.
"It was so easy to get them," Lee said. "People were so eager to sign."
The initiative would allow cities and counties to adopt laws to allow marijuana to be grown and sold, and to impose taxes on marijuana production and sales. It would make it legal for anyone who is at least 21 to possess an ounce of marijuana and grow plants in an area of no more than 25 square feet for personal use.
Steve Smith, a political consultant who has run many California initiative campaigns, said that as a rule of thumb, supporters assume that about 30% of the signatures on petitions will be invalidated.
"I'll be very surprised if they don't qualify," he said.
The measure, the Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis Act, is one of four initiatives in circulation to legalize marijuana use, but it is the only one that appears to have the financial support to make the ballot.
Lee's firm, one of the state's most successful marijuana businesses, has spent at least $1.1 million so far on the measure. Lee owns half a dozen businesses in Oakland, including Coffeeshop Blue Sky, a medical marijuana dispensary, and Oaksterdam University, which teaches about marijuana.
Lee said he expected that the campaign will cost between $7 million and $20 million, but he hopes to raise the money from across the country.
"We feel like we've done our part," he said.
Lee has hired consultants to run an Internet-based campaign that he said already has a mailing list of about 30,000.
In a news release, the campaign announced that it had more than 650,000 signatures, but Lee said that the firm he hired to collect signatures put the number at more than 680,000. Lee said volunteers would continue to gather signatures until the campaign turns in the petition early next year.
Polls have shown support among California voters for legalization. A Field Poll taken in mid-April found that 56% of voters in the state and 60% in Los Angeles County want to make pot legal and tax it. A poll taken for the initiative's proponents in August found that 51% of likely voters supported it when read language similar to what will be on the ballot, but that increased to 54% when they were read a less technical synopsis.
Smith said those numbers suggest proponents face tough odds.
"Generally, you are at your high point when you start," he said. "The no side just has to come up with one good reason to vote no."
But Smith said that a lot will depend on how much money is spent by both sides and whether the electorate tilts toward left or right on election day.
"I think it'll probably be a very close vote," he said.
Law enforcement organizations are likely to oppose the measure, but several contacted Monday said they had not yet adopted an official position.
Some marijuana advocates have criticized Lee for pushing his measure, arguing that they would have a better chance in 2012, a presidential election year when the electorate tends to be more liberal.
"I think things have turned our way so much that we have a good chance of winning," Lee said. "This is the time to bring up the issue and talk about it. Who knows what will be going on in 2012."
Dale Gieringer, the director of California NORML, was one of the skeptics, but he said his pro-legalization organization would endorse the ballot measure.
"I'd like the initiative to pass," he said, "but I'm not holding my breath necessarily for this to happen."
Lee said he believes that the increasing acceptance of medical marijuana has changed the dynamic. He said voters are aware that it is easy to obtain a doctor's recommendation to use marijuana, but he said most believe that is "a good thing."
"Medical marijuana in California has been accepted as legalization in some ways by a lot of the population," he said. "To me this is codifying what it happening."