02/19/2014 08:27 pm ET Updated Apr 21, 2014

Waiting For California to Legalize Marijuana

Marijuana is in the news today, as the Coalition for Cannabis Policy Reform (the best-financed advocacy group in California) have stated that they will not, after all, be moving forward with a ballot initiative in 2014 to legalize recreational use of marijuana. After considering their ballot measure's chances (the "Control, Regulate and Tax Marijuana Act"), the group has decided to wait until 2016 to move forward. This may come as a blow to California marijuana supporters, but in the long run it may have been the smart thing to do. Waiting another two years isn't a welcome prospect to many, but it may produce a better law and broader public support in the end.

The biggest argument in favor of California waiting is voter demographics. More liberal voters turn out for presidential elections than do for midterms. There's a counter-argument to make -- that putting marijuana legalization on the ballot will improve turnout among young and liberal voters -- but so far it remains largely unproven, due to how fast public opinion is changing on the issue and due to how little data exists on such votes. But the "let's wait" argument has it's own history: California's previous attempt at passing legalization, Proposition 19, failed. In 2010. Which was not only a midterm year, but also the year of the "Tea Party shellacking." Bypassing 2014 in favor of 2016 would avoid the problem of low turnout in midterm years, especially if 2014 turns out to be a big victory for Republicans (as many are currently predicting).

The biggest argument in favor of going ahead in 2014 is that the idea's time has come, and California could help lead the way towards nationwide legalization. It would be the most-populous state to legalize recreational use, which would carry a lot of weight in other states considering the idea. Since Proposition 19 failed, however, California has lost the "first in the nation" claim to Colorado and Washington, so this leadership effect would be slightly blunted. Advocates of going forward this year point to polling which shows a majority of California's voters are now in favor of outright legalization -- but there were also favorable polls which showed the same thing in 2010. The actual Proposition 19 voting didn't reflect these polls, however, and the initiative lost (polls showed public support for the measure at 50 percent or higher, but it only wound up with 46.5 percent of the vote). Given two more years, it is likely that the public will be even more supportive of the idea, especially after seeing how other states' experiments work out.

How the new law will be written is a somewhat touchy subject, as well. So far, there have been (by my count) four separate 2014 marijuana ballot initiatives proposed in California. The Control, Regulate and Tax Marijuana Act was the best-financed one, and it just withdrew from the field. Earlier, California was the first state in the nation to legalize medical marijuana (way back in 1996). Because California's law was the first, it was an untried legal experiment. Because it had to get past the voters, it was written with some major loopholes and a lot of vague language. This has led to no small amount of legal chaos for the state's medicinal marijuana providers. If California waits until 2016 to pass recreational marijuana, they will have some solid results in other states (currently only Colorado and Washington, but that list could easily be longer by 2016), allowing California to learn from others' mistakes in how to draft a good legalization law. Of course, the counter to this way of thinking is that this is nothing more than a good excuse for waiting forever.

Setting up a marketplace where none has legally existed for decades is a complicated business. There are questions of taxation, local control versus state control, how to set the bar for driving while intoxicated, restricting availability to children, homegrowing, restrictions on production, and plenty of other thorny issues which not every marijuana reformer agrees upon. Waiting for some solid data from other states would mean having a much better basis to decide such contentious issues. If one state overtaxes or goes too far in setting unjustifiable DWI/DUI standards, California can learn from their experience and not make the same mistakes. There are two sides to this issue, though. One view is that marijuana reformers are only going to get "one bite of the apple" -- that one proposition will pass, and we'll be stuck with whatever it says. The other view is that the big hurdle is legalization itself, and once that is crossed then any necessary adjustments to the law will be less contentious and easier to pass than the big legalization leap itself.

The best news from California marijuana activists is that they're at least starting to band together under their major common cause, rather than fighting each other. With multiple possible ballot initiatives this year, this may not seem immediately apparent. But there's a reason why it was such big news when one of them pulled out of 2014. The other initiatives will not have as much money to get on the ballot, meaning their chances have to be seen as worse than the one that just left the field. It takes quite a bit of money to get the necessary signatures in California, and it takes an even bigger pot of money to adequately advertise before the election (California's media market is enormous and very expensive to penetrate). Dan Riffle of the Marijuana Policy Project pointed this out today:

I have long believed that the prudent approach is to wait until 2016. Obviously, the sooner we tax and regulate marijuana the better, in any state. That said, given the amount of money it would take to qualify and pass an initiative in California, the stakes are particularly high there. A 2014 initiative would probably pass, but failure would prevent us from taking another chance in 2016. Rather than rushing to gamble on an initiative that would probably pass, let's spend the next two years planning and preparing for an initiative we can definitely pass.

Proposition 19 raised over $4 million, and failed. The new target is to raise $10 million to improve the next proposition's chances for success. The failure of Proposition 19 is instructive in other ways, as well. The measure did make it onto the ballot, but the advertising campaign wasn't adequately funded or very well planned. Opponents' ads made arguments the proposition's proponents didn't do a good job of countering. Since it was the first major attempt at legalization, the language of the proposition also had a few shortcomings.

Other states learned from California's mistakes, though. The reform advocates spent a lot of time doing necessary outreach and groundwork in Colorado and Washington to avoid the problems that Proposition 19 experienced. This included getting diverse groups on board with the general idea, and listening to their concerns over the issues. One of the main reasons for not moving forward in California in 2014 is that there simply isn't enough time to do the groundwork and reach out to affected parties in the state before the election -- groups such as public health officials, law enforcement organizations, and others. Getting them comfortable with the legalization concept goes a long way towards gaining widespread public acceptance.

The best news, though, is that California reformers have created an umbrella organization called the Coalition for Cannabis Policy Reform to pool their resources and all work on the same page (instead of at odds with each other). The full list of who makes up the Coalition is impressively broad. It includes advocacy groups such as the Drug Policy Alliance, California NORML, Marijuana Majority, Marijuana Policy Project, Oaksterdam University, Americans for Safe Access, and Students for Sensible Drug Policy. It also includes groups with their own varied outlooks and constituencies such as the ACLU, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, the Emerald Growers Association, and the California NAACP. That is a pretty impressive list of groups working together towards a common goal.

Californians are likely going to have to wait until 2016 to cast their ballot on the issue of legalizing marijuana for recreational use (unless one of the other initiatives defies expectations and makes it onto this year's ballot). This likely means a wait of two years, even while other states get the chance to vote on it later this year. It will be a frustrating wait for those who want to move forward in California more quickly. But if it means two additional years of preparing the ground and gaining public acceptance, taking the time and opportunity to learn from other states' mistakes, and -- most importantly -- if it means getting more and more advocacy groups to work together instead of against each other, then the wait may well be worth it. In 2016, the chances may be better among California voters to pass the best-written recreational marijuana law yet -- a law which could serve not only as a blueprint for other state efforts, but also eventually for a federal law to legalize marijuana which would end the War On Weed forever. Waiting two years is going to be disappointing to many, but in the end the wait might be worth it.


Chris Weigant blogs at:

Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant

Become a fan of Chris on The Huffington Post