By Stu Woo, The Wall Street Journal
SAN FRANCISCO -- A majority of Californians in recent polls say the state should legalize marijuana. What pot proponents can't agree on is how soon voters will really be ready to approve legalization.
A schism has emerged among California's pot-legalization advocates. On one side are those pushing to get a proposition to voters quickly, including activists such as Richard Lee, who last month began collecting signatures to put a pot-legalization measure on the state's November 2010 ballot.
Participants smoke pot at the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws conference Sept. 25 in San Francisco. Groups pushing for legalization of the drug in California disagree over whether they have a better chance to succeed with a ballot initiative in 2010 or 2012
On the other side is a go-slow camp calling for a 2012 vote, including activists like Dale Gieringer, director of the California chapter of the National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws, or Norml. "I do think it will take a few more years for us to develop a proposal that voters will be comfortable with," said Mr. Gieringer.
In recent elections, Californians have been less liberal than their free-thinking image would suggest. That has led to sharp rifts over strategy among proponents of a number of liberal causes in the state. The pot schism mirrors a split in another cause -- the effort to overturn Proposition 8, which in 2008 banned same-sex marriage -- where advocates likewise disagree over whether to put a measure on the ballot next year or to wait until 2012.
It is clear to both the 2010 and 2012 supporters that pot legalization faces significant hurdles in California. While pot is already widely available under the state's medical-marijuana laws, and an April Field Poll found that 56% of Californians would support legalizing and taxing marijuana sales to help with the state's budget crisis, there is a significant anti-legalization lobby that is gearing up to fight any pot proposition.
"I don't think it matters if it's in 2010 or 2012," said John Lovell, a lobbyist for California police groups, "once the public understands what we're talking about."
Mr. Lovell said a case in point was the 2008 defeat of Proposition 5, which would have reduced the criminal consequences of drug possession. Internal polling by a campaign to defeat the measure initially showed it passing with 68% approval, said Mr. Lovell, who was chairman of the campaign. But voters changed course and defeated it with 60% disapproval. Law-enforcement groups who campaigned against that proposition are ready to battle any new marijuana initiative, he said.
The 2010 ballot proponents say there is no time like the present, because California's economic mess gives pot legalization an urgent fiscal appeal. Taxing pot could help reverse cuts in spending to education, health care and other services enacted this year, said Mr. Lee, who along with fellow activist Jeff Jones is gathering signatures for a 2010 measure. "We're the answer for all of the things on the news," Mr. Lee said.
Mr. Lee is the founder of Oaksterdam University, an Oakland, Calif., school that trains students for jobs in the medical-marijuana field. California's marijuana industry, which was already growing, got a boost earlier this year when the Obama administration announced that it was backing off federal raids of dispensaries.
Mr. Lee's measure would allow local governments to legalize and tax marijuana sales. He said he was providing most of the $1 million he thinks is needed to gather the 434,000 signatures to put the proposition on the ballot. Mr. Lee said he took a private poll of 800 likely voters, which found 54% for an initiative versus 42% against.
His effort got a boost in September when Don Perata, a former California Senate president and a leading candidate for Oakland's 2010 mayoral race, endorsed the measure. "In this time of economic uncertainty, it's time we thought outside the box and brought in revenue we need to restore the California dream," Mr. Perata said last week.
A 2010 initiative would have a reasonable chance of passing, said Thad Kousser, a visiting professor at Stanford University's Bill Lane Center. Generally, ballot measures that start with 55% or lower support in polls lose to well-funded opposition campaigns, Mr. Kousser said. But marijuana proponents could tip the scale in their favor if they can tie the initiative to the state's budget woes. "Any social concerns that Californians have can be overridden by bringing in more money to the state," he said.
Go-slow advocates say Mr. Lee's camp doesn't understand the California electorate and the subtle strategies of exploiting election cycles. "The demographics are clearly much better in 2012, and victory would therefore be much easier," said Aaron Smith, California policy director of the Marijuana Policy Project, a national pot-advocacy group. "You have the younger, more progressive voters that get out in the presidential elections."
As progressive as California voters may be, they will still scrutinize any pot bill for holes, said Norml's Mr. Gieringer. For example, Mr. Lee's 2010 proposal doesn't address the questions of whether marijuana could be smoked in public or how it could be advertised. An initiative is worth pursuing only if it has a good chance of winning, he said, and Mr. Lee's measure "wasn't worth the expenditures."
Mr. Lee said that if his 2010 measure lost, he would support a 2012 effort as well.