Pubdate: Sat, 16 May 2015
Source: Yakima Herald-Republic (WA)
Copyright: 2015 Yakima Herald-Republic
Author: Alison Vekshin, Bloomberg News


SAN FRANCISCO - A fight next year over whether to allow recreational 
marijuana use in California may serve as a tipping point as 
legalization proponents press their campaign in other states.

"A lot of eyes are on California," said Gavin Newsom, the state's 
lieutenant governor and a legalization proponent. "It's very 
different than almost any other state because of the scale and the 
magnitude of the change and what it will represent across the country."

The most populous state is among at least five, including 
Massachusetts and Maine, in which legalization measures are likely to 
appear on ballots in November 2016. Both advocates and opponents say 
California is the key battleground, where success or failure is 
likely to determine whether most of the country decriminalizes the 
drug for recreational use.

"A state with so much influence and size is very important," said 
Kevin Sabet, co-founder of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, a San 
Diego-based nonprofit group that opposes legalization. "We expect a 
long, drawn-out battle in California - and an expensive one."

At stake is a market of 39 million California residents, more than 
double the combined size of Colorado, Washington, Alaska and Oregon, 
whose voters legalized marijuana in 2012 and 2014. California was 
first to allow medical marijuana in 1996, and its hundreds of 
dispensaries have made joints a common sight in cities and towns 
throughout the state. Attitudes toward pot smoking are also shifting 
as use proliferates, with voters increasingly supporting its decriminalization.

While California voters rejected a legalization measure in 2010, 
supporters say its prospects are better in 2016 - a presidential 
election year in which young voters who are more inclined to support 
legalization are more likely to participate. Backers also cite 
shifting public opinion and the experience of the four states that 
have legalized marijuana to help design a measure that appeals to a 
majority of voters.

Among likely California voters, 55 percent favor legalizing pot, 
compared with 43 percent who said the drug should remain illegal, 
according to a March poll by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute 
of California in San Francisco. Support is at its highest level since 
the group began polling on the question in 2010, when a ballot 
measure to allow recreational marijuana use in California failed.

"With California and some other, smaller states legalizing it in 
2016, the federal government will be forced to reckon with this," 
said Lynne Lyman, California state director at the Drug Policy 
Alliance, a pro-marijuana group that's leading the effort in the 
state. "We're hoping that this leads to the end of marijuana 
prohibition nationally."

Both sides say success will hinge on campaign donations, where 
marijuana supporters have the advantage. The issue has drawn interest 
from wealthy donors, including billionaire George Soros, who gave $1 
million to California's 2010 measure. It's also likely to generate 
funding from a marijuana industry developing in other states and 
providers who want to expand into the California market. Soros was 
unavailable to comment, spokesman Michael Vachon said.

Opponents can win if they raise $10 million, which would allow them 
to set up a robust field operation and organize groups, including 
those in education and law enforcement, said Wayne Johnson, president 
of a self-named Sacramento-based firm, who ran the opposition 
campaign on the 2010 pot measure. They will emphasize the impact the 
availability of marijuana will have on children to garner votes from 
parents, Johnson said.

"They're the first voters who switch sides," Johnson said. "It's a 
key demographic that represents the Achilles heel of the yes side."

Lyman said supporters fear the possible involvement of big-money 
donors such as Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire chairman of Las Vegas 
Sands Corp., the world's largest casino operator. Adelson poured $5.5 
million into defeating Florida's medical marijuana ballot measure in 
November. Adelson declined to comment, spokesman Ron Reese said.

California comprises almost half of the legal cannabis market, said 
Troy Dayton, chief executive officer of ArcView Group, an 
Oakland-based marijuana investment and research firm that's raised 
$70,000 for the state's ballot effort.

"Legalizing adult use in California would be a worldwide game changer 
that would dwarf the markets in Colorado, Washington, Oregon and 
Alaska combined," he said.

Supporters will increase their odds of passage if they offer a 
measure that regulates and taxes the industry, emphasizing that use 
of the drug is already rampant and would then be controlled, Johnson 
said. They'll need to raise at least $20 million to run an effective 
campaign, he said.

"I don't think it's a slam dunk to pass," said Rob Stutzman, a 
Republican political consultant who worked for former Governor Arnold 
Schwarzenegger. "There's a lot of opposition to it. There will be a 
lot of concern about unintended consequences."

Supporters will have the more difficult burden of persuading voters 
to change the law, while opponents can stir doubt and concern to 
secure 'no' votes, Stutzman said.

The Drug Policy Alliance began raising funds through a political 
action committee in the fall with the goal of securing $15 million to 
$20 million for the campaign, Lyman said. The group plans to begin 
drafting the initiative this spring after a series of meetings across 
the state to gather feedback on issues including taxes, regulation 
and environmental damage, she said.

The initiative will require 365,880 signatures if it's a statute 
change and 585,407 for a constitutional amendment, according to the 
secretary of state's office.

Neighboring Nevada has approved a similar proposal for its 2016 
ballot, with measures also likely in Arizona, Maine and 
Massachusetts, said Mason Tvert, a spokesman for the Marijuana Policy 
Project, an advocacy group that's helped fund legalization campaigns 
in other states.

"The drug is ubiquitous already," said Newsom, 47, who is running for 
governor in 2018 and chairs a pro-legalization group. "We have a very 
mature industry that has existed formally through medical-marijuana 
dispensaries since 1996 that's de facto unregulated. In addition 
we're not generating any revenue."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom