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What Are the Odds California Will Legalize?

Sooner or later, the thinking goes, Californians will vote to legalize marijuana for personal use. The drug has long been legal as medicine, decriminalized for recreation, and easy to get for almost everyone. Legalization, then, should be a perfect fit.

But it’s not quite that simple. Two previous efforts to legalize failed, one at the ballot, the other at an even earlier stage. So what, really, are the chances California will make cannabis legal in 2016?

Two previous attempts have failed

Marijuana Legalization VoteFirst, it’s important to understand the two previous attempts as well as the origins of the current campaign. Legalization first appeared on the statewide ballot in November 2010. It was an off-year national election, meaning turnout was low and conservative voters held sway.

That alone played a significant part in the defeat of the referendum. But it also failed because public support was low and because advocates couldn’t manage to agree among themselves. Polls showed less than half of voters wanted to legalize. That number didn’t cross the 50 percent threshold until at least a year later.

Reform advocates couldn’t agree on a proposal

The second legalization effort never even made the ballot, mostly because several advocacy groups couldn’t reach consensus on a single proposal. National lobbying groups gave little money to the cause in 2014, knowing it was likely to fail.

Surprisingly, 2014 was also an off-year election. Typically, legalization initiatives do better in on-year elections, when presidential candidates are on the ballot, along with senators and members of the U.S. House. These elections tend to draw younger, more progressive voters who are more likely to back marijuana reform.

So why did advocates put their money and efforts behind two off-year campaigns? It’s hard to know for sure, but it may have simply been a matter of poor timing. In any event, many observers viewed the 2014 push as doomed from the start.

Strong public support

Things are different this time around, at least to a large extent. Public support is even stronger than it was two years ago, and national organizations are pouring large amounts of money into the effort.

Day Three Of The World Economic Forum 2012And various groups seem to be at least a bit more cohesive than they were before. The two largest groups recently joined forces, with tech billionaire Sean Parker at the lead. Parker has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars and will likely give more.

That plan would legalize cannabis for recreation while providing protections for children. It would also impose a tax on marijuana sales and would allow possession of relatively small amounts.

Grassroots activist pushing unrealistic proposals

That position contrasts with the views of grassroots activists, who are also pushing legalization initiatives. They typically want large limits on personal possession, with some petitions providing for none at all. This approach is unlikely to succeed with mainstream voters.

But it does reduce the likelihood legalization will win in November, if only slightly. If any of the smaller groups should get their proposal on the ballot, the choice between two initiatives could confuse voters and lead them to reject both.

Still, Parker’s is the only proposal with a good shot at making the ballot. If it gets there alone, the odds it will pass are seen to be very good. Polls show support well above 50 percent, and the campaign will be backed by significant amounts of cash.

It’s probably a little too early to be putting money on victory this year, but the odds look better with each day. Failure is always possible, but Californians should expect legal marijuana – if not this year, soon.

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 and

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