California to Decide on Legalizing Marijuana

California voters will decide this November whether to legalize and regulate adult recreational use of marijuana. The secretary of marijuanastate on Wednesday certified that a Bay Area-based effort to put the issue on the ballot has collected enough signatures to do so.

If passed, California would have the most comprehensive laws on legal marijuana in the entire world, advocates say. Opponents are confident they will easily defeat the measure.

The vote will be the second time in nearly 40 years that people in the Golden State will decide the issue of legalization, though the legal framework and cultural attitudes surrounding marijuana have changed significantly over the past four decades. If Californians pass the measure, they would be the first in the nation to vote for legalization. Similar efforts in other states all have failed.

Backers needed to collect at least 433,971 valid signatures of registered voters, and Secretary of State Debra Bowen said they met that threshold.

If voters approve the measure, it will become legal for Californians 21 and older to grow and possess up to an ounce of marijuana under state law. Local jurisdictions could tax and regulate it or decide not to participate. Marijuana would continue to be banned outright by federal law.

Current state law allows a person, with a doctor’s approval, to possess an amount of marijuana that is reasonably related to the patient’s current medical needs. People also can obtain cards identifying themselves as a patient, which helps in interactions with law enforcement.

“There is no state that currently allows adults to grow marijuana for personal (recreational) use, but what is totally different and will be a game-changer internationally is this would allow authorized sales to adults as determined by a local authority,” said Stephen Gutwillig, California state director of the Drug Policy Alliance Network, an organization advocating for changes in drug laws.

Key supporters

The major backers of the initiative - the founder of an marijuana trade school based in Oakland, a retired Orange County judge and various drug-law reform organizations - are planning to oversee a $10 million campaign to push the measure.

Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said his organization will work hard to pass the proposition, adding that the California effort is notable because it probably will be funded by the marijuana industry.

“This is being launched at a time not only of mass nationwide zeitgeist around marijuana,” but acutely so in California, he said. “Almost all other (marijuana) initiatives were poorly funded, and what funding there has been … was purely philanthropic.”

But opponents, who probably will include a large coalition of public safety associations, said that once voters understand the implications of the measure, it will be handily defeated.

“The overarching issue is, given all the social problems caused by alcohol abuse, all the social and public safety problems caused by pharmaceutical abuse and the fact that tobacco kills - given all those realities, what on Earth is the social good that’s going to be served by adding another mind-altering substance to the array,” said John Lovell, a lobbyist for a number of statewide police and public safety associations.

Additionally, he said, employers and government entities that receive federal money may not be able to meet federal standards for drug-free workplaces if the measure passes, putting billions of federal dollars in jeopardy.

‘Sink like a rock’

“It’s terrible drafting … that will cause the state of California significant fiscal problems,” he said. When these issues are presented to voters, he said, the measure will “sink like a rock in the North Atlantic.”

Attitudes of voters in California have increasingly moved in favor of full legalization of marijuana. Californians passed Proposition 215 in 1996 to legalize marijuana for medical use. A bill in the Legislature would also legalize adult recreational use, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has said it is an idea that should be debated, although he personally opposes it.

A Field Poll taken in April found that 56 percent of voters backed the idea of legalization and taxation of marijuana. The measure will add to an already crowded November ballot, with an expensive gubernatorial race looming along with other statewide offices.

Prominent candidates running for higher office, including Democratic Attorney General Jerry Brown, who is seeking the governorship, and San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris, a Democrat who is running for attorney general, have said they oppose the initiative. Don Perata, former Senate president pro tem and candidate for Oakland mayor, supports the initiative.

The major Republican candidates oppose the measure.

Richard Lee, the founder of Oaksterdam University, has spearheaded the effort and said he is not concerned about prominent political opposition to the plan, noting the similar lack of support for Prop. 215.

“I think the voters lead the politicians on this issue and they realize that,” Lee said.

This article appeared on page A - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle

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