There’s no shortage of views on the question of legalizing recreational marijuana in California.
That much was evident at a series of focus groups earlier this year, where 48 men and women representing a cross-section of the state filed into rooms with one-way mirrors to share their opinions. The research is aimed at shaping an expected legalization initiative for the 2016 ballot.
California was viewed as a pioneer before Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Alaska legalized the drug in recent years. But 15 years after California voters became the first in the country to decriminalize medical marijuana, advocates in 2010 mounted a broader legalization campaign that failed. Now, attention is shifting back to the Golden State, said Alex Kreit, a drug policy expert at Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego.
“I expect that California will be another big test on the issue,” Kreit said, and that raises the stakes on a legalization proposal. “If California fails, that has the potential to change the narrative and trajectory from a situation where it seems legalization is an inevitability to one where we may see a reversal of course.”
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Though public polls show a growing majority of state voters back the concept of legalizing marijuana, the data gathered in Riverside, Fremont and Los Angeles underscore the challenges to crafting a measure that can withstand the scrutiny of a multimillion-dollar opposition campaign. Commissioned by the United Food and Commercial Workers Western States Council, the research also provides an example of the steps being taken by sophisticated political operations to help shape a ballot-box fight with national implications.
The UFCW Western States Council, an umbrella labor group for 160,000 grocery and other workers across the state, is one of many health, government, environmental and marijuana industry organizations in discussions with leaders of the ballot effort.
The group already has a foothold in the marijuana industry, representing about 1,000 workers in medical cannabis jobs, and wants in on the ground floor of expansion efforts. Unions want to make sure a proposal contains strong workplace protections, said Jim Araby, executive director of the UFCW Western States Council.
“If you look at the legalization efforts in other parts of the country, questions about creating real training standards for the workforce weren’t a piece of the conversation and dialogue,” Araby said.
“Part of our process is, if this becomes a legal industry, it’s going to grow from its current estimate of $1.5 (billion) to $2 billion, up to an estimated $10 billion. When you talk about billions of dollars, you’re not really talking about revenue generated, you’re actually talking about people working in it.”
While other groups already have submitted initiatives for the 2016 ballot, a coalition led by Drug Policy Action, the political arm of the Drug Policy Alliance, the Marijuana Policy Project and A New Approach is viewed as having the best chance of passing a measure.
A recent statewide survey found that likely voter support for legalizing recreational marijuana use has grown to 55 percent, up 6 points since 2010. In that time, it has increased by 10 points among Republicans, though GOP support still stands at 44 percent, according to the Public Policy Institute of California.
Even with a majority of voters favoring the issue at the start, proponents of successful ballot measures must get everything right: from the timing, concept and policy details to the messages, messengers and money, said Ned Wigglesworth, an initiative strategist and partner at Redwood Pacific Public Affairs.
“For marijuana advocates, the standard may be even higher – particularly with potential donors and supporters who don’t want to put their money or reputations on the line for an unprofessional, disorganized campaign,” Wigglesworth said.
He said multiple measures on the same topic risk confusing voters and could send a harmful signal that advocates don’t have their act together.
“If it comes off as a sensible, well-considered change in drug policy supported by credible groups, they’ve got a shot,” he said. “If it comes off as a scheme cooked up by potheads, voters will treat it accordingly.”
Analysts attribute the failure of the last legalization measure, Proposition 19, to its overreaching language. Critics said one provision would limit employers’ ability to penalize workers who used marijuana unless it impaired their job performance. Opponents ran ads depicting teens, drivers and nurses under the influence of marijuana.
Ultimately, it was done in by fierce critiques from educators, business groups and law enforcement, said Wayne Johnson, the strategist who guided the campaign against Proposition 19. He said supporters still don’t have a good template for how to legalize pot, and polling data show “how beatable this is in 2016.”
“They have still not figured out a way to convince parents there’s a way to mitigate the impact on at-risk youth,” Johnson said, noting the potency of today’s marijuana. “You actually have marijuana addiction today, whereas in the old days that was considered ‘reefer madness.’ ”
Chris McKenzie, executive director of the League of California Cities, which opposed the 2010 legalization effort, said it’s “too early to start drawing lines in the sand.” But, he added, any measure at least “has to provide for complete local control.”
Democratic Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who supports legalizing marijuana for recreational use, also wants to influence the initiative. His Blue Ribbon Commission on Marijuana Policy is studying how to approach issues ranging from taxation to public safety.
“Once we pass this, everybody could jump up and down and applaud, but it’s got to be done right,” Newsom said. “You could go through a half-dozen questions we pose and find no consensus on what the answers are. It seems to me we should take advantage of this moment to get the answers.”
Glenn Backes, a lobbyist for the Drug Policy Alliance, said the team of proponents has been “in the room taking careful notes on the issues that the commission is vetting. We think they are an important voice in the process.”
“We have to craft this as carefully as we can, and I hope that the lieutenant governor and others will feel that we have the best measure yet, and that they will be able to fully support it,” he said.
Backes said his group plans to put forward a measure that would allow adults 21 and older to possess and grow a limited amount of marijuana for their own use. It most likely would permit local governments to ban or further regulate the cultivation, transportation, warehousing and sale of marijuana. The group is exploring consumer protections and would seek to impose taxes at the local and state levels, with likely allocation to health services, among other areas.
Details about the workforce, supply chain and which agencies would craft the rules and regulate the industry are in development.
At the focus groups, held Feb. 10, 24 and 26 and conducted by David Binder Research, likely voters talked about where they stood on the issue. The six groups of eight people included Republicans, Democrats and independents, as well as whites, blacks, Asians and Latinos. They were paid about $75 each.
Subjects said they generally support legalization, with some reporting they overcame prior objections to the drug when a friend or family member became ill and used it as medicine. Others believe the current system has reached a breaking point and, despite reservations, think marijuana should be taxed and treated more like alcohol or cigarettes. Still others remain ardently opposed, particularly concerned about the potential impacts on children and teenagers.
In Fremont, one woman said under the current system it’s “ridiculously” easy for patients to obtain prescriptions for medical marijuana. “There are people circumventing the process,” she said, according to notes provided by the researchers.
Participants were provided sample ballots, which varied somewhat but were consistent in allowing production, processing, delivery, possession and sale of marijuana to adults. They liked the idea of taxes, and favored revenue going to education and to help reinforce law enforcement agencies. They also seemed warm to the idea of a professionalized workforce.
Researchers said the talks suggested that any proposal should include limits on advertising to children, and incorporate clear product labels and large fines for selling to minors.
Araby, who also serves on the blue ribbon task force, said it’s critical that the proposal not “try to solve every little problem and overcomplicate” things for voters. He envisions enlisting thousands of campaigners from organized labor who could advertise the effort, hold phone banks and invest in TV ads.
“The biggest challenge now,” Araby said, “is to make sure the groups that have the resources to put something on the ballot and pass it all work together.”