Where elected leaders fail, people power can still prevail. Registered voters heading to the polls this fall for elections in Colorado, Washington, and perhaps California will have a chance to enact historic cannabis legalization in 2012.
A Colorado group said it will file 155,000 signatures with the state on January 6 — enough to qualify the group's recreational cannabis legalization and tax initiative for the November ballot. Similarly, a group in the state of Washington said on December 29 that it filed at least 355,000 signatures to get on the November ballot.
In California, groups need to turn in 504,760 verified signatures by mid-April. One California legalization group recently stated that it has gathered 10,000 verified signatures so far, while two other groups that are circulating petitions have yet to gather any signatures.
The libertarian-leaning state of Colorado seems to be the most promising, with an experienced, well-funded, well-organized group called the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol. Campaign co-director Mason Tvert said the group needed 86,105 verified signatures and will turn in almost double that amount for the state to verify. The group initially filed eight different marijuana legalization initiatives in 2011, but then "went with the one we preferred," Tvert said. The campaign used paid signature-gatherers — as most groups do these days — as well as about 500 individual volunteers and 150 businesses. Various polls show about 50 to 54 percent of Coloradoans in favor of legalization, Tvert said.
The Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol faces opposition from law enforcement officials, as well as more radical reformers who want to repeal all cannabis laws — period. If the Colorado initiative passes, the cannabis industry would be similar to the state's tightly regulated medical marijuana industry, with licensed growers, technicians, and retailers. Medical marijuana dispensaries also could apply for a license to sell to anyone 21 or older with proof of age.
A group in Washington has also become a force to reckon with. On December 29, New Approach Washington turned in more than 355,000 signatures to the Secretary of State's Office, which will likely place "Initiative 502" on the ballot. Washington requires at least 241,153 verified signatures to qualify for the statewide ballot.
Initiative 502 also would create a system of licensed growers, processors, and stores, along with a 25 percent excise tax. Adults aged 21 and over could buy up to an ounce of cannabis, one pound of edibles like brownies, or 72 ounces of cannabis infused liquids. About 57 percent of registered Washington voters support legalization of personal possession of up to an ounce of marijuana and a 25 percent tax, according to a December poll of 613 registered voters conducted by Survey USA.
Like Colorado's effort, New Approach Washington also faces opposition from both cops and radical legalizers. Initiative 502 creates a THC blood limit for drivers. Critics call it unscientific, and say regular cannabis users who drive sober will test over the limit and go to jail.
In California, meanwhile, three ballot initiatives are gathering signatures, while two are pending review by the secretary of state, and if approved, will also enter circulation. They're all long-shots, but in the lead is Regulate Marijuana Like Wine from retired judge James P. Gray of Orange County. Campaign co-organizer Steve Kubby of Lake Tahoe said the group has collected more than $100,000 in campaign donations for the last quarter of 2011. The group collected 10,000 validated signatures in its first two weeks of circulation using volunteers, he said.
"Like Wine" needs 494,000 more verified signatures by its own deadline of March 20, Kubby said. While that sounds like a lot, he is confident they will make it. "We are absolutely on target," he said. "When we did Proposition 215, we struggled along until we finally got the funding we requested and we were able to wrap up the signature collection in about five weeks," he said. "We're getting the donations."
Kubby pointed to various polls by Gallup and The Economist that show majority support for legalization. But the next twelve weeks are bound to be a nail-biter for the group and others.
The efforts to get the "Repeal Cannabis Prohibition Act of 2012" on the ballot suffered damage in December with the ouster of campaign director Craig Beresh. Beresh wrote in an email to Legalization Nation that the group's plan is "doomed before it starts. With no money and no experience or proper leadership this can't be done. Even the signature-gathering company can't guarantee that they can get it done on time," he wrote.
Repeal Cannabis co-author and Santa Rosa attorney Joe Rogoway said Beresh was dismissed because "he was a nightmare to work with" and "toxic." The group will begin gathering signatures this year using paid gatherers. But the group will not report taking in any campaign donations in the fourth quarter of 2011. They have until April 19 to hit their goal of 750,000 unverified signatures.
"It's still a lot," Rogoway said, "but I think we are going to make it."
In a distant third is a proposal to further decriminalize pot. But it has neither funds nor signature-gatherers, said Bill Zimmerman, author of the proposal.
Late entries to the ballot measure game include two more petitions awaiting state approval to circulate: one that would regulate, control, and tax medical marijuana statewide, and a legalization scheme called the California Cannabis Hemp and Health Initiative.
California's fractious legalization community is sabotaging itself, Zimmerman said. Rogoway was more hopeful. "It's our victory to lose. I think we've learned from 2010, and a unity coalition is emerging," he said. "I would say, 'Don't count California out.'"