Few successful political movements count their finest hours a loss. Yet 2010 will remain the high-water mark of the marijuana legalization movement for at least another two years -- or longer, if the federal situation worsens.
Buoyed by Oaksterdam University founder Richard Lee's cash and energy, Proposition 19 -- which would have legalized possession of up to 1 ounce of pot for adults 21 and over, and allowed cultivation of small gardens -- lost in November 2010. It garnered a historic 4.6 million votes, or 46.2 percent of ballots cast. Following the loss, Lee declared on election night that legalization was inevitable, and that the issue would return in 2012 "stronger than ever" with a new ballot measure.
While Lee bowed out -- and the Prop. 19 redux committee instead focused on reforming medical marijuana -- the 2012 election cycle began with four competing legalization measures.
But the inevitable became official on Friday, when all committees missed the deadline to qualify their initiatives for the November ballot.
So now we have to wait until 2014, and pray the movement finds a new leader -- and new benefactor.
To qualify for the ballot, would-be liberators of the magic plant needed to collect over 500,000 valid signatures and submit them to the Secretary of State by April 20.
Of the failed efforts, one -- Regulate Marijuana Like Wine -- came closest, according to proponent Steve Kubby, a South Lake Tahoe-based activist. That measure managed to collect about 200,000 signatures, Kubby said on Monday. Other efforts, including Repeal Cannabis Prohibition, which was sponsored by a coterie of attorneys in Mendocino County and the Bay Area, waved the surrender flag much earlier.
"We're full steam ahead for 2014," said Kubby. "Some of the funders are telling us that [donating then] won't be a problem."
As for Prop. 19's successor committee, it also withdrew its efforts well before the deadline. A bill sponsored by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, (D-San Francisco) is nearly identical to that bill and is in committee in Sacramento.
So what killed the legalization movement? Money, mostly.
In 2010, the federal government helped defeat Prop. 19: In the weeks before the election, Attorney General Eric Holder warned that if the measure passed, his Justice Department would "vigorously enforce" federal drug laws. That had a cooling effect -- as did U.S. Attorney for Northern California Melinda Haag's shot sent across the bows of Oakland and other cities eager to cash in on legal weed. Haag also said that Prop. 19's passage would mean lots of work for federal drug enforcement.
In Bay Area marijuana circles, Haag is seen as somewhere between the bogeyman and evil incarnate for her office's participation in a statewide crackdown on the medical marijuana industry. It's a near certainty that the closures of hundreds of dispensaries across the state by the feds had some kind of effect -- which would have been moot in the face of money.
The legalization efforts' need for cash was never a secret. Initiatives sponsors went as far as to issue a public plea for pot-supporting billionaires to open their hearts, but mostly their wallets, and come up with the estimated $2 million needed to collect upwards of 700,000 signatures of registered California voters. But nobody -- not the Facebook moguls who threw down for Prop. 19, nor Prop. 215 savior George Soros -- would pony up. And that was merely to put the measure on the ballot. Actually running -- and winning -- a campaign would take another $2 million.
Meanwhile, Lee's influence has all been neutralized. Well before the federal government relieved him of his business, he abdicated his throne as the movement's de-facto leader. He'd spent his life savings -- about $1.5 million -- and an untold effort on Prop. 19. It was someone else's turn, he later told reporters.
"The polling wasn't really positive," Lee said on a conference call with reporters last week. "But what's really overwhelming right now is the federal issue."
Right. Many marijuana supporters speculate that the crackdown will lessen once President Barack Obama is reelected in the fall. And if he isn't? Well, you may be able to wistfully tell your grandkids about the wonder that was 2010.
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