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Bid to legalize marijuana in California takes key step

Supporters gather what is likely to be enough signatures to put their measure on the state ballot in November.

January 29, 2010|By John Hoeffel
  • Howard Dillon unloads boxes of signatures as Judge James P. Gray looks on at the Los Angeles County registrar/recorder-county clerk's office in Norwalk.
Howard Dillon unloads boxes of signatures as Judge James P. Gray looks on… (Francine Orr / Los Angeles…)

Proponents of an initiative to make California the first state to legalize marijuana have collected about 693,800 signatures, virtually guaranteeing that the measure will appear on a crowded November ballot.

"This is a historic first step toward ending cannabis prohibition," said Richard Lee, the measure's main backer.

Advocates, trailed by television cameras and photographers, dropped off petitions with elections officials in the state's largest counties, including Los Angeles, where organizers said 143,105 voters signed.

Lee, a successful Oakland marijuana entrepreneur, bankrolled a professional signature-gathering effort that circulated the petition in every county except Alpine, which only has about 800 registered voters.

The initiative would make it legal for anyone 21 and older to possess an ounce of marijuana and grow plants in an area no larger than 25 square feet for personal use. It would also allow cities and counties to permit marijuana to be grown and sold, and to impose taxes on it.

Four legalization initiatives have been proposed, but Lee's is the only one that is likely to make the ballot. To qualify, it needs 433,971 signatures. Elections officials have to validate the signatures, a process that will take at least six weeks.

Polls have shown growing support nationwide for legalization. In California, a Field Poll taken in April found that 56% of voters in the state and 60% in Los Angeles County want to make pot legal and tax it.

Mark DiCamillo, the poll's director, gave the initiative 50-50 odds. But he said the state's endless financial woes could make a difference. "The voters are going to be looking for any way to minimize the pain with budget cuts," he said.

He also said baby boomers could play a crucial role. "They grew up with marijuana and, in many respects, don't believe as much all the horror stories," he said.

The initiative's supporters are counting on this formula, but they are not taking chances. Lee hopes to raise $10 million to $15 million. His firm has already spent more than $1 million on the measure.

Lee owns half a dozen mostly pot-related businesses in Oakland, including Coffeeshop Blue Sky, a medical marijuana dispensary, and Oaksterdam University, which offers popular classes on marijuana.

Some prominent marijuana legalization advocates have questioned Lee's decision not to wait until 2012, a presidential election year likely to draw more liberal voters, but most are nonetheless supportive.

The Drug Policy Alliance helped draft the measure and could raise substantial money. George Soros, the billionaire investor who donated heavily to help pass the state's 1996 medical marijuana initiative, is one of its most prominent supporters. "We all have the same goal, which is to end prohibition as quickly as possible. We just haven't determined whether this campaign in this particular year is the vehicle," said Stephen Gutwillig, the alliance's California director.

Lee has hired political professionals and is relying on Web technology from Blue State Digital, the firm Barack Obama used to run his vaunted Internet operation during the presidential race. The campaign raised $10,000 from the Web in the last month.

"You've got a very active, committed online force," said Dan Newman, a political strategist working with the campaign. "We're confident that we're on the road to having the resources needed to win."

Foes also have started to organize. Paul Chabot, founder of the Coalition for a Drug Free California, said teachers, youth activists, religious leaders, small-business men, law enforcement personnel and elected officials are putting together a coalition. "We're going to fight them head on; we're not going to go away," he said. "We're looking forward to victory in California and spreading that message like a tidal wave across the United States."

john.hoeffel@latimes.com

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