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Initiative to legalize marijuana qualifies for November ballot

March 24, 2010 |  5:22 pm

http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/.a/6a00d8341c630a53ef0120a686382b970c-600wi

State election officials announced Wednesday that an initiative to legalize marijuana will be on the November ballot, triggering what will likely be an expensive, divisive and much-watched campaign to decide whether California will again lead the nation in softening drug laws.

Los Angeles County election officials Wednesday turned in their official estimate of the number of valid signatures, putting the statewide figure above the 433,971 needed for the measure to make the ballot. The county, where one-fifth of the signatures were collected, was the last to report its count, filing just before 5 p.m.

Polls have indicated that a majority of voters in California want marijuana legalized, but the margin is not enough to ensure the initiative will win. Two years ago, opponents defeated an attempt to relax the state's drug laws despite being outspent. "It's always easier for people to say no than to say yes for an initiative," said Mark Baldassare, the pollster for the Public Policy Institute of California. "Generally, all it takes is for people to find one reason to say no."

The initiative would allow adults 21 or older to possess up to an ounce for personal use. Possession of an ounce or less has been a misdemeanor with a $100 fine since 1975, when Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown, who was then governor, signed a law that reduced tough marijuana penalties that had allowed judges to impose 10-year sentences. Legalization supporters note that misdemeanor arrests have risen dramatically in California in the last two decades. The initiative would also allow adults to grow up to 25 square feet of marijuana per residence or parcel.

But the measure, known as the Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis Act of 2010, goes further, allowing cities and counties to adopt ordinances that would authorize the cultivation, transportation and sale of marijuana, which could be taxed to raise revenues. It's this feature of the initiative that supporters hope will draw support from voters who are watching their local governments jettison employees and programs in the midst of a severe budget crisis.

The measure's main proponent, Richard Lee, savored the chance to press his case that the nation's decades-old ban on marijuana is a failed policy. "We're one step close to ending cannabis prohibition and the unjust laws that lock people up for cannabis while alcohol is not only sold openly but advertised on television to kids every day," he said. He said the measure would allow police to focus on serious crime, undercut Mexican drug cartels and make it harder for teenagers to buy marijuana.

Lee, who owns several marijuana businesses in Oakland, has already spent at least $1.3 million on the campaign, primarily on a professional signature-gathering operation. He has also recruited a team of accomplished political advisors, including Chris Lehane, a veteran operative who has worked in the White House and on presidential campaigns.

"There's all kind of big professional politicos who are coming on board now to take it to the next level," he said.

Lee has said that he hopes to raise as much as $20 million for the campaign, 10 times the amount that proponents spent in 1996 to pass Proposition 215, the state's medical marijuana initiative.

Opponents have also begun organizing. "There's going to be a very broad coalition opposing this that will include law enforcement," promised John Lovell, a Sacramento lobbyist who represents several law enforcement organizations. "We'll educate people as to what this measure really entails." Lovell said legalizing marijuana would lead to increased use, cause the same kind of social ills as alcohol and tobacco, and put more demands on law enforcement.

-- John Hoeffel

Photo: L.A. Times file

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