With Californians likely to vote in November on whether to legalize marijuana, some key swing voters - Democratic and independent women - are expressing a surprising reason why they would support the initiative.
The suburban "soccer moms" who are likely voters have told pollsters that the measure, which would give local governments the authority to tax and regulate the sale of cannabis to adults 21 or older, would provide a safer way for their adult children to buy pot.
"One of the scary things to some people is that their kids may be buying it from someone dangerous," said Ruth Bernstein, a pollster with EMC Research, an Oakland firm that has been doing polling and focus groups on behalf of the measure's proponents.
California already boasts some of the nation's most pot-friendly laws. Possession of an ounce or less of marijuana is a misdemeanor, and those who obtain approval from a physician can grow or possess cannabis under the state's voter-approved 1996 medical marijuana law.
In 2001, state voters approved a law allowing first- or second-time possession-only offenders caught with larger amounts of pot to avoid jail by requesting a treatment program instead.
The initiative, known as the Tax and Regulate Initiative, would expand those laws by allowing local governments to tax and regulate marijuana sales, increase penalties for providing marijuana to a minor, and prohibit consumption of marijuana in public, smoking marijuana while minors are present and possession of pot on school grounds.
But none of those provisions matters to law enforcement organizations and conservative religious leaders who oppose legalization on public safety and "moral" grounds.
Battle in the suburbs
The battleground to legalize marijuana will be in the suburbs, experts say.
"The legalizers have yet to explain what the social betterment is by legalizing another mind-altering substance," said John Lovell, a lobbyist for law enforcement agencies, including the California Peace Officers' Association, that are opposed to legalization. "They're smoking something if they think soccer moms are going to go their way."
"It's a moral issue," said Bishop Ron Allen, leader of the International Faith Based Coalition. The former crack cocaine addict is on stop No. 14 of a tour of 100 churches that oppose the initiative. "Can you imagine legalizing more drugs in this area?" asked Allen, pastor of a south Sacramento congregation where, he says, "there are more liquor stores than grocery stores."
Proponents of the measure said last month they had gathered 680,000 signatures - far more than the 433,971 required to get on the ballot - and said they will submit the signatures to the secretary of state in mid-January to be verified.
"People generally know where they stand on this issue," much like how people feel about same-sex marriage, Bernstein said. "But there is about 15 percent in the middle that is kind of soft."
Some soccer moms acknowledge that it is relatively easy for even their adult children to buy pot, Bernstein said. They have talked with their kids about the dangers of drugs and alcohol. Twelve percent of those surveyed have smoked weed and 19 percent say a family member has, according to an EMC survey of 800 likely voters in August.
Bernstein said parents are worried about "this scary black-market system."
Follow the money
Legalization advocates want to capitalize on a wave of renewed interest in legalization, much of it bolstered by a state Board of Equalization study saying that the taxing and regulating of marijuana could raise as much as $1.4 billion in annual revenue.
Proponents say that resonates with Californians in light of the state's projected $20.7 billion budget deficit from now through the fiscal year that begins July 1.
In addition, an Assembly hearing will be held this month on legislation by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, to legalize and tax marijuana in the state.
Proponents of the initiative, led by Richard Lee, owner of Oakland's marijuana-related Oaksterdam University and Coffeeshop Blue Sky, are stocking their campaign with top talent. Blue State Digital - the political firm that created the groundbreaking Obama campaign Web site - created the technology for the marijuana campaign's online effort.
With that in place, Lee expects to raise at least $10 million online - "10 dollars from 1 million people," he said. Opponents expect to raise $1.5 million, Lovell said.
Too soon to vote?
But behind the scenes, some proponents of legalization worry that taking the measure to voters this year is too early. They argue that 2012 would offer a better chance of victory in a presidential election year that would bring out more young voters.
Few major elected officials - with the exception of Ammiano and Oakland mayoral candidate and former state Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata - are expected to publicly support the initiative. Internal polling by initiative backers puts support at about 52 percent.
Only one statewide initiative aimed at legalizing or decriminalizing marijuana has ever passed in the United States - a 2008 Massachusetts measure that replaced criminal penalties with a civil fine for possession of less than 1 ounce.
But that law is less sweeping than what's being proposed in California because possession and sale of pot remain illegal in Massachusetts.
The success of California's medical marijuana initiative isn't a good predictor of whether voters will approve legalization, said Bruce Mirken, director of communications for the Marijuana Policy Project, an advocacy group.
Nationally, marijuana legalization initiatives have failed five times in three states - Oregon, Nevada and Alaska - since 1986, according to the Marijuana Policy Project. The most recent, in Nevada in 2006, polled strong in the months before the election but received only 44 percent support of the vote.
What was the disconnect between early polling and election day?
"I wish I knew," Mirken said. Polls show that "people feel that that the state's marijuana laws aren't working. It's a matter of whether they want to make a change."
State pot measures
Initiatives to legalize or remove penalties for marijuana use have had little success in several states, including California. Only a 2008 Massachusetts initiative to decriminalize marijuana, replacing criminal penalties with a civil fine for possession of under an ounce, was approved by voters.
Here is a history of statewide initiatives, with the percentage of voter support received:
(with some regulation)
1986: Oregon, 24 percent. Defeated.
2000: Alaska, 41 percent. Defeated.
2002: Nevada, 39 percent. Defeated.
2004: Alaska, 44 percent. Defeated.
2006: Nevada, 44 percent. Defeated.
Removal of all penalties
(without taxation, regulation)
1972: California, 34 percent. Defeated.
2006: Colorado, 41 percent. Defeated.
2008: Massachusetts, 65 percent. Approved.
January 5, 2010
San Francisco Chronicle
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Bid to legalize pot is counter to U.S. trend