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Number of Legal Marijuana Initiatives Grows

California election officials have cleared a new group of activists to start gathering signatures for an initiative to legalize marijuana in November.

Marijuana plantSecretary of State Alex Padilla said in late February that the advocates behind the legalization proposal may start gathering signatures. They will need to collect more than 350,000 in the next six months.

That’s a tall order, especially for a small group entering the game late. The proponents, Dave Hodges, John Lee, and Michael Grafton, will likely have to raise several million dollars to succeed, a goal they almost certainly won’t meet.

If their petition were to make the ballot, it would ask voters to legalize cannabis under state law. This would put California together with Oregon, Alaska, Colorado, and Washington as states where marijuana is legal for recreation.

15 percent sales tax of retail sales

The plan would impose a sales tax of 15% on non-medicinal pot sales. And it would allow local governments to ban marijuana cultivation and retail stores, but only if their voters agree.

State officials estimate legalization would save state and local governments as much as $100 million each year by freeing up police resources so officers can pursue real criminals rather than cannabis users. Taxes at the state and local level could add up to net yearly revenues of several hundred million dollars, the officials concluded.

Proposal unlikely to make the ballot

Sean Parker California
Sean Parker

Proponents now have until Aug. 22 to collect enough signatures. But they probably won’t get that far. There are already about 20 initiatives trying to make the ballot, and only one has drawn substantial funding and political support.

That effort, the Adult Use of Marijuana Act, is spearheaded by tech billionaire Sean Parker, who has donated $1 million of his money to the cause. Altogether, his group has raised $2.25 million in the last few months.

It typically costs several million dollars to put a public initiative before voters. Millions more are needed after that point to succeed in November.

The logistics of a signature-gathering operation are difficult, to say the least. The signatures must be gathered from across the state, meaning a large network of volunteers and paid staff, not to mention pro-marijuana ads and the salaries of political insiders who know how the initiative process works.

Several long-shot reform groups have already withdrawn

A few groups have already dropped out of the running, probably because of Parker’s group and its broad-based support. Parker and his fellow activists have won the backing of the state’s lieutenant governor and the NAACP, along with other large national and statewide reform groups.

Most of the smaller petitions were put together by small teams of grassroots activists, and none has much of a chance of passing. Drafters of these petitions typically refuse to set realistic caps on personal possession or sale, allowing Californians to buy and keep as much weed as they want.

The group led by Hodges, Lee, and Grafton would at least impose a healthy sales tax, but their proposal is short on regulation. While appealing to stoners and the marijuana industry, this would likely drive mainstream voters to reject the plan.

Two previous efforts to legalize in California failed, the first in 2010, the second in 2014. In both cases, internal divisions among the reform community helped cause defeat. The 2010 initiative was voted down at the ballot box while the 2014 push never made it that far.

About Matt Brooks

Based in San Francisco, Matt is a journalist who has specialized in marijuana policy for more than five years. He provides regular news coverage on marijuanaandthelaw.com and californiamarijuanamarket.com.

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