In 2004, as Oakland clamped down on dispensaries, Lee spearheaded a local initiative requiring police to make marijuana their lowest enforcement priority. To appeal to non-users, he pitched it not as legalization, but as a way to "tax and regulate" marijuana. The measure passed with 65% of the vote.
Marijuana is now all but legal in Oakland. Underground clubs sell it to adults with no pretense that it is for medical use. Four dispensaries pay a tax approved last year that raises about $800,000 a year. The now-pot-enamored City Council has endorsed Lee's legalization initiative, approved a plan for four enormous indoor marijuana farms and placed a pot tax increase on the Nov. 2 ballot.
Council members who were once adversaries treat Lee as a respected advisor. "Let me just thank you for who you are and what you've done for the industry," Councilman Larry Reid said at a hearing after Lee had spoken.
Lee decided to push a statewide initiative even though veteran activists urged him to wait until 2012, when the presidential election would probably bring out more liberal voters. He believed the recession made his tax-and-regulate message all the more resonant.
"He's it. It was his idea. He bankrolled it. His team wrote it," said Dale Gieringer, head of the California chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
Lee has contributed about three-fourths of the $1.9 million the campaign had raised by midyear. His go-it-alone approach left some natural allies on the sidelines, including wealthy donors who bankrolled earlier measures to loosen California's drug laws. And Lee has been vilified by some within the medical marijuana community who prefer the status quo and who argue that the initiative could disrupt their businesses and jeopardize patients' access to pot.
Polls show that about half the state's voters support Proposition 19. Lee, who professes a visceral distaste for politics, had hoped to fade into the background when the initiative made the ballot. But with no high-profile supporters and no money for TV ads, he remains its most visible advocate.
One recent day, Lee drove into San Francisco to search for potential donors and endorsers at a fundraising lunch for a union-backed nonprofit. Wearing his usual Oaksterdam polo shirt, he stood out among the sharp suits and sleek dresses.
As the speeches began, Lee flipped absently through the program, studied ceiling beams and chuckled when Mayor Gavin Newsom announced he had one final thought after stem-winding past several other final thoughts. When the pinstriped Democrat strode out, Lee sped after him and asked for an endorsement.
Newsom, a candidate for lieutenant governor, reeled back in theatrical horror. "Oh, Jesus," he cried. "Oh, God. Oh, God."
He swiveled. He vanished.
Undeterred, Lee went back inside to try again.