Marijuana supporters unveil plans for California ballot initiative

The march to bring marijuana legalization before California voters in 2016 ramped up Thursday with the announcement by a group of longtime Bay Area cannabis advocates that they have hired heavy-hitting Democratic political strategists and plan to release a draft of the proposed initiative in the coming weeks.

Santa Rosa-based attorney Joe Rogoway is part of a team with the Coalition for Cannabis Policy Reform that is crafting an initiative under a project dubbed ReformCA, backed by California NORML - the state branch of the national marijuana reform group - that would create a framework for a “robust set of regulations” to legalize cannabis for use by adults while maintaining regulations already in place for medical use.

“We’re going to have strict licensing criteria, and we’re going to be able to generate hundreds of millions of dollars for the state based on the model we want to put in place,” said Rogoway, a lead attorney for the coalition.

If filed, ReformCA’s proposal could be the most ambitious and well-funded of the various pot legalization measures to make a run at the 2016 ballot.

Seven proposed initiatives that seek to legalize marijuana already have been filed with the state Attorney General’s Office.

The crowded playing field has created mixed alliances. Santa Rosa attorney Omar Figueroa, who defends clients facing criminal charges involving marijuana, has given his support - in the form of a signature - to four of the initiatives. Another initiative drafted by the California NAACP is signed by its president, Alice Huffman, who is also on the board of directors with the Coalition for Cannabis Policy Reform and reportedly is also backing ReformCA.

ReformCA’s initiative, if filed, brings the number to eight; however, it is likely many will be abandoned as cannabis supporters combine efforts.

David McCuan, political science professor at Sonoma State University, said that during this early phase of the initiative process, it is common to see many competing initiatives, especially ones dealing with major issues of the day. The cost of filing with the state is only $200.

The more daunting task, and the next major challenge for many of the marijuana proposals, is the need to gather signatures in order to qualify for the ballot. A statewide proposal must secure 365,880 valid signatures, and McCuan said the signature-?gathering process typically costs $2 million to $4 million.

Still, California voters likely will face between 15 and 30 initiatives in November of next year and several of those are bound to involve legalizing marijuana, McCuan said. That showdown could sink them all, he suggested.

“When voters are faced with multiple choices, they generally vote no and maintain the status quo,” McCuan said.

ReformCA has hired political consultant and Fox News commentator Joe Trippi, who advised the campaigns of Gov. Jerry Brown and former presidential candidates Howard Dean and John Edwards. Trippi has been credited with creating the “digital army” concept of raising money through many small, individual donations while a consultant with Dean.

ReformCA already has raised about $500,000 through its network of about 70,000 supporters in California, said Dale Sky Jones, coalition chairwoman and executive chancellor at Oaksterdam University, a school that prepares people for careers in the cannabis industry and doubles as a hub for cannabis activism.

On a Thursday morning conference call, Jones announced that the coalition has hired Progressive Campaigns Inc. to gather signatures in support of the initiative, a process that is expected to begin this fall.

Jones said that they plan to raise about $4 million through a base of individual donors during the campaign. In addition, Jones said they are hoping to announce larger sources of support and financing next week. She estimated the campaign will cost $10 million to $14 million.

ReformCA also has brought on Jim Gonzalez, a political strategist who helped manage the 1996 Proposition 215 initiative that legalized medical marijuana in California. Gonzalez served on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in the 1980s.

Hezekiah Allen, the executive director of the Emerald Growers Association, said that his members were not ready to endorse the ReformCA plan. Allen said he’s waiting to see if other heavy-hitting organizations like the Drug Policy Alliance also launch their own effort to legalize marijuana. He said his members are particularly focused on protecting small growers and promoting sustainable environmental practices.

“Ending the failed war on drugs is too important for politics as usual,” Allen said. “That’s why we’re waiting at this point. We absolutely will not be making an endorsement any time soon.”

Most statewide law enforcement groups have not taken a stance on the pot legalization proposals. That could change if and when they qualify for the ballot. In 2010, all of the major state law enforcement groups opposed Proposition 19, the last, failed ballot-box effort to legalize recreational marijuana.

Sarah Shrader, Sonoma County chairwoman for Americans for Safe Access, which advocates to safeguard medicinal cannabis use, said that although the group’s members have consulted with ReformCA and others, they will not endorse a ballot measure to legalize marijuana for general use because their organization focuses on medicinal pot use.

The group will push to ensure that any initiatives do not make it harder for people with illnesses to secure cannabis for medical purposes, Shrader said.

“We’re paying attention,” she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 521-5220 or On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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