Punting for Weed

The Super Bowl’s next Sunday, but in the battle to legalize pot, the big day is in November. After years of waiting, proponents of legalization have finally collected enough signatures to get the “Regulate, Control, and Tax Cannabis Act” on next November’s ballot in California. The DC-based National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) – which has chapters throughout the country - has been fighting this fight well over three decades, and executive director Allen St. Pierre tells us this election could mean a big touchdown. It could make California’s currently quasi-legal medical marijuana dispensaries fully legal and be a big booster for the issue on the national level. As the saying goes, “So goes California, so goes America.”

It would be interesting to see the betting spreads on this vote, for according to recent polls it looks like dead heat. “If the vote were taken today, it would either pass at 52 percent or fail at 52 percent,” St. Pierre says. “The British would call this a wobbler.”

The punter, if you will, of the pro-marijuana team is Richard Lee. Founder of Oaksterdam University, the US’s first cannabis-oriented "college," and operator of a marijuana dispensary in Oakland, Lee is single-handedly speeding this initiative along. He has already bankrolled most of the $2.1 million invested in the campaign so far, and he’s likely to put in a couple million more. Lee has said the campaign will require around $20 million total.

Richard Lee, founder of Oaksterdam University

NORML and other marijuana advocacy groups have tried to be more cautious, but Lee has forced them – instead of moving down the line methodically – to go for a 60-yard field goal. 2012 was seen as the optimal year to bring the initiative to vote, as it would coincide with the next presidential election. “But Richard has a different timeframe,” St. Pierre says. “He’s a medical patient in a wheelchair. He’s somewhat disabled. As far as he’s concerned, tomorrow’s potentially his last day on this earth.”

Along with Lee’s strong devotion, the initiative is novel in another way. “All the prior (marijuana) initiatives that have passed since 1996 have been funded by elite billionaires,” St. Pierre says. “But in this case the funding is being done entirely from the stakeholders themselves, the canna-businesses, who are in some cases generating eye-popping profits…. In the past, it was visionary altruism; today it is entrepreneurship and stakeholdership.”

The fast growth of California’s medical marijuana industry is one of the reasons this issue is gaining such traction now. At the moment, medical marijuana is a $2 billion industry in California. Potentially, the state – which is still in the midst of a budget crisis – could collect as much as $1.4 billion annually in taxes. Last year, even Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger endorsed the idea of a statewide discussion on the issue.

“We’re living through some crushing economic times,” St. Pierre says. “In the same way that alcohol prohibition likely wouldn’t have ended as fast as it did if it wasn’t for the Great Depression,” the cause of marijuana legalization is being helped by the economic crisis.

But if Lee and his supporters miss the goal in November, it would be quite a loss. “If we were to get, say, 40 percent of the vote, that could set us back a few years,” St. Pierre says. “NORML, the ACLU, every single one of us begged (Lee) for another two years before launching this. So we’re saddled with this - there’s no doubt about it.”

- Ivan Weiss