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Proposition 19: high-profile issue, low-profile campaign

With competitive top-of-the-ticket races siphoning away big bucks, neither side in the marijuana debate has attracted the money to advertise on TV, the most effective way to reach California voters.

October 18, 2010|By John Hoeffel, Los Angeles Times

Proposition 19, which would legalize marijuana in California, is the most talked-about ballot initiative in the country. If it passes, it would revolutionize the state's drug laws, provoke a clash with the federal government and fire up the movement to pass similar laws in other states — even other countries. It's become a staple for national talk shows and comedians.

But the high-profile issue is playing out in a surprisingly low-profile campaign. With the competitive top-of-the-ticket races siphoning away the big bucks, neither side has attracted the money to mount a serious TV ad campaign, the most effective way to reach the state's 17 million voters.

Political strategists consider ballot measures without much money to be long shots, but supporters have pinned their hopes on a grass-roots campaign that has cranked up in recent weeks, relying on volunteers nationwide to canvass on college campuses and call swing voters using a Web-based phone-bank system.

An influx of donations — more than $650,000 so far this month — will allow the campaign to target young people, who overwhelmingly tell pollsters they want to see pot legalized, and African Americans and Latinos, who will be told the war on drugs incarcerates them at higher rates than whites.

And the endorsement of the Service Employees International Union and the United Food and Commercial Workers, which see legalized marijuana as an industry that could create union jobs, means slate mailers will reach about 900,000 members and hundreds of volunteers will make calls and walk precincts.

Proposition 19 would allow people 21 and older to grow up to 25 square feet of marijuana and possess up to an ounce, and authorizes cities and counties to approve commercial cultivation, retail sales and taxation.

The measure has remained steadily ahead in most polls, with the support of about half of the electorate. If it passes Nov. 2, it might be due to the ardent believers, many in their 20s, who are the ground troops.

Elizabeth Tauro and Matt Wolfrom, senior public policy majors at the University of Southern California, recently waylaid students with shouts of "Yes on 19! Legalize marijuana!" Michael Howard, who hopes to open a delivery service, led eight volunteers ejected from the Brewery ArtWalk in Los Angeles onto sizzling sidewalks, where they cheerfully chanted and passed out literature for hours.

In the Oakland headquarters of Yes on 19, David Meiler, dubbed "Super Dave" by the campaign, said he has called thousands of voters, many of them middle-aged mothers, to "plant a little seed in their heads." The campaign says it has more than 50 volunteers in Oakland and is making about 6,000 calls a day.

The outreach may be too little, too late. The campaign's drive to register college students, who can vote in California even if they are from out of state, accelerated last week, but Monday is the deadline.

But some once-skeptical drug-reform advocates now believe the campaign has a shot. Slow to back the proposition — the inspiration of Richard Lee, an Oakland medical marijuana entrepreneur — they are soliciting donations, lending staff and coordinating strategy. The Drug Policy Alliance, which has raised millions for past California initiatives, has reeled in more than $310,000 this month.

"Win or lose, this thing — for not a great investment of money — has generated an extraordinary dialogue and debate," said Ethan Nadelmann, the alliance's executive director. "Even if you accept that it's not going to win, there's no better time to invest a dollar to move the ball down the field."

Public Safety First, the main opposition campaign, is backed by state law enforcement groups and the Chamber of Commerce, which sent a letter to a couple hundred of its largest members. But it has much less money and has been outraised by about a 10-to-1 margin this month. "Our big focus right now continues to be trying to get some money in the door," said Roger Salazar, a spokesman. He declined to reveal the campaign's strategy, other than to say it plans a series of media events throughout the state.

With election day two weeks away, both sides are relying heavily on forums, news conferences and talk shows and have found the extensive news coverage remarkable. "We probably lead the league in radio, television and print media interviews," Salazar said. "It's out of control," said Dale Sky Jones, a spokeswoman for Yes on 19. "I've been on Fox News, like, seven times in eight days." Voters may yet see mailers, Web videos, radio and cable TV ads and celebrity endorsements.

More than eight out of 10 voters have told pollsters they are aware of the initiative. And a Public Policy Institute of California poll last month caused a stir. It found that likely voters favor legal marijuana more than they favor any of the candidates for governor and senator, leading comedian Stephen Colbert to quip: "If Prop. 19 were a human, it would be the most popular candidate in California."

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