By Michael W. Savage
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 9, 2010; 10:17 PM
OAKLAND, CALIF. - For those who have long argued that smoking marijuana should not be a crime, a potentially historic turning point is just weeks away.
Voters in California will decide Nov. 2 whether to make their state the first to legalize the growing, selling and recreational use of marijuana. And polls here - the nation's most populous state - suggest that residents are about evenly split on the issue.
Proposition 19, as it is known, would take away criminal penalties for people 21 and older for possession of one ounce or less of marijuana.
If it becomes law, it would mark yet another legal milestone for the state. Fourteen years ago, California became the first to allow the use of marijuana for medical purposes. Since then, 13 other states and the District have followed suit.
Advocates for legalization say they hope the vote in November will set off another trend across the nation.
"If and when this passes," said Jeff Jones, a longtime cannabis advocate who was arrested a decade ago for opening a medical marijuana dispensary, "you will see stories around the world saying this was a major shift in drug policy."
Supporters of Proposition 19 argue not only that legalization could help dismantle violent Mexican drug cartels, but also ease the state's crippling $19 billion budget deficit with new taxes on the sale of marijuana.
But opponents warn that passage could unleash a legal nightmare: They say the referendum would bar employers from firing stoned workers without proving first that they were impaired. That would mean school bus drivers, for example, could get high before climbing behind the wheel, according to critics.
An unlikely coalition has formed, with medical marijuana dispensary owners and marijuana growers joining law enforcement to oppose the measure. That camp also disputes the promise of a new stream of cash into state coffers.
Proposition 19 is on the ballot largely because of one man: Richard Lee, owner of Oaksterdam University, which trains medical marijuana growers and dispensers. Lee has bankrolled the campaign, donating $1.46 million.
"A lot like alcohol prohibition repeal came about because of the Great Depression, now we have the great recession," he said. "We've got budget problems, and Al Capone-style violence in Mexico."
As is often the case, both sides argue that money is the motivating factor. Lee's opponents say he stands to make millions if marijuana becomes legal, with added business to his university and coffee shops in his "Oaksterdam" neighborhood adding pot to the menu.
He disputes that he would cash in, and counters that the major California growers who now supply marijuana to medical dispensers and the black market are opposed because they fear the inevitable fall in price that would come with legalization.
Early on, opponents campaigned on the simple argument that cannabis should not be legal. But they have refined their message over time, telling voters even if they support legalization in principle, the current initiative is not the way to do it.
"I think a lot of people were anticipating that this was going to be the great sociological debate and it's turned out to be something quite different - mainly because they've made some quite significant errors in drafting the initiative," said Wayne Johnson, head of strategy for the "No" campaign, which has been largely bankrolled by the California Police Chiefs Association.
Opponents cite the language prohibiting employers from firing pot-smoking workers until the bosses could prove there was a problem. Drafters saw it as a way to keep disapproving superiors from sacking employees who smoke pot in their spare time. But opponents argue the clause creates a protected class of workers who can't be fired.
"It would prohibit employers from having a no-drugs policy," said Allan Zaremberg, chief executive officer of the California Chamber of Commerce.
He contends that businesses may be forced to violate a federal law requiring employers to maintain a drug-free workplace, making them ineligible for federal funding.
Meanwhile, there have been setbacks within the "Yes" campaign. Proponents are struggling to pull in the tens of millions in funding they had hoped for.
Some supporters initially disagreed with Lee over timing. Ethan Nadelmann, the founder of the influential Drug Policy Alliance, an organization at the forefront of earlier legalization efforts, said he had urged Lee to wait for 2012, when the presidential race would bring out more liberal voters.
But Lee said he did not want to wait. "To me this is a war, and we have to win it as soon as possible," he said.
In the end, he believes everyday folks who have smoked pot will support him, and he points to hundreds of small donations he has received from teachers, bank workers, lawyers and retirees around the country.
Among them is Michael Baldinelli, a retired risk manager from Plymouth, Calif. "I'm 58 years old," he said. "I'm a retired professional. I've raised a family, and I've smoked pot all my life. Making it illegal just criminalizes normal behavior."
Both sides agree that the vote could be decided by the "soccer mom" contingent, and both are shaping their messages for that audience. The No camp has targeted them with a stark image of stoned school bus drivers who couldn't be fired.
"That is the worst-case scenario," said Laura Preston, legislative advocate for the Association of California School Administrators. "But it paints the picture."
Among the opponents are some medical marijuana dispensary owners who argue that the measure would hurt patients by taxing the marijuana they now get without paying taxes.
"It's kind of an odd thing for us, because if it passes, we stand to make millions of dollars," said Lanette Davies, owner of the Canna Care dispensary in Sacramento. "However, it's not the right thing to do for patients."
While the outcome of the vote is in the balance, advocates believe the 2010 push will be just the first in an increasing number of legalization efforts. A plan for a vote in Washington state next year is being drawn up.
"Whether or not this wins or loses, we will see many further attempts to legalize marijuana in the next four to six years," said Nadelmann.
"When the dust settles, we'll find that there are a lot more people, significant people, who have come out and openly supported legalization. It has changed the terrain for the future."