Fiona Ma for State Assembly
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History Can Offer a Sobering Reality for Full Legalization in California

Although Election Day is about one year away, Californians are already talking about the potential legalization of cannabis for adult recreational use through the initiative process.

Next year, we are very likely to see at least one initiative proposal (and possibly several different measures) when we head to the ballot box.

But that statement is far more complicated than it first appears.

It is true — polls show that a majority of people support the concept of legalizing cannabis. But, as with most ballot initiatives, the details will determine the outcome.

And where there are details, there is complexity.

Details and complexity

First, the relatively simple. For a fee of $200, any Californian can begin the initiative process by drafting and submitting ballot language to the Attorney General, who prepares the ballot title and summary (which appears on the petition, in the statewide Voter Guide mailed out by the Secretary of State, and on the ballot).

Once the Attorney General prepares and releases an official ballot title and summary, the petitioner can go about the work of collecting signatures to qualify the initiative for the November ballot. This means that under the current formula set forth by the State Constitution, a petitioner has to collect at least 365,880 valid signatures for their initiative to make it on to the ballot. If the initiative is a constitutional amendment, the number of signatures required rises to 585,407.

On paper, this appears to be an easy process.The reality of ballot measures, however, is seldom easy.

First, it’s costly. Hundreds of thousands of signatures are required per initiative, so the cost of gathering enough signatures for nine (9) separate cannabis questions on the ballot could run in the tens of millions of dollars. According to the Attorney General’s office, there are currently nine (9) legalization measures that have been cleared for circulation, with more pending in the review process. Lack of funding to pay signature gatherers, or alternatively, a strong and organized grassroots campaign to collect signatures, means that several of those measures will never advance further than they are now.

Second, even if multiple cannabis measures qualify, the competing measures create an additional set of complications. For instance, many of the initiatives require the state to create a new agency to govern cannabis, while others require existing agencies to extend their scope of practice. Some of the proposals lay out cultivation and transportation standards, while others are silent on those issues. And this is before we even get to the subject of taxes. The list of potential conflicts between any two of the competing initiatives goes on and on.

And that should give proponents of legalization some pause. In the event that two or more measures make it to the ballot, and are approved by the voters, the Constitution is clear: any conflicts between the two measures will be resolved in favor of the initiative that receives the most “Yes” votes.

So, what is the best strategy

Two strategy options

Proponents have two options:

  1. First, they can move forward with several proposals and risk that they all get defeated at the ballot box by an electorate that may see a lack of agreement and coordination between advocates of legalization as a sign that California just isn’t ready to take this step.
  2. The alternative scenarios, where two or more legalization measures pass, practically begs a years-long, legal battle that costs millions of dollars and keeps the industry in limbo.

The possibility of a ballot initiative passing would increase if all proponents came together and put forward a single proposal that comprehensively addresses all of the issues that have arisen in this debate:

  • Cultivation and conservation standards;
  • Industry regulations and local control;
  • Public safety and criminal justice; and,
  • Access to bank services and taxes that invest in California and recover the taxes that the state is due.

Regardless of how one stands on legalizing cannabis, we can all agree that this is going to be one of the most fascinating ballot measures in the history of California.

Regardless of which proposal (or proposals) appear on the ballot, one thing is absolutely clear: California is once again showing the world what democracy in action looks like.