Marijuana Legalization Petitions Filed in California

California appears headed for a rollicking November ballot fight over whether to legalize and tax marijuana cultivation and use for adults 21 years and older.

Proponents of the “Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis Act of 2010” said Thursday that they had submitted to the state nearly 700,000 petition signatures – more than enough, if valid, to qualify the measure for the November ballot.

Secretary of State Debra Bowen has until June 24 to certify the measure, which needs 433,000 valid voter signatures to qualify.

But already legalization proponents and opponents are gearing up for a fight. The election battle is expected to feature rival TV commercials that variously extol the tax benefits of a regulated marijuana market or warn of the threat mass legalization poses to communities.

Measure backers promise financial rescue for the state’s cash-strapped schools, police agencies and social service providers, saying legalization could generate more than $1 billion in tax revenue.

“This is an historic first step toward ending cannabis prohibition,” said Richard Lee, president of an Oakland medical marijuana dispensary and Oaksterdam University, a school dedicated to pot.

Lee, whose school specializes in pot law and cultivation, donated more than $1 million for the petition drive to qualify the measure. Proponents said they hope to raise as much as $10 million for the campaign.

The pro-pot coalition has signed on with a prominent San Francisco political consulting firm, SCN Strategies. Proponents also are working with an Internet fundraising firm, Blue State Digital, that helped create the Web network for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign.

“This isn’t your teenager’s cannabis initiative. … This was carefully crafted to build a winning coalition of supporters,” said Dan Newman, a partner with SCN Strategies. His firm includes veteran Democratic strategist Ace Smith, son of former San Francisco District Attorney Arlo Smith.

The initiative will face dogged opposition from law enforcement, church and anti-drug groups.

“This will be a serious campaign,” said John Lovell, a lobbyist for the California Peace Officers Association, a group organizing opposition. “They will raise and spend $10 million to $15 million. We will raise a fraction of that. And we will win …

“The fact is that you can’t make a case for legalization of another mind-altering substance.”

Bishop Ron Allen, president of the International Faith-Based Coalition, a Sacramento group representing 3,600 congregations, said “angry church leaders” will do “whatever it is going to take to fight this to the very end.”

Marijuana has been legal for medical use in California since voters passed another ballot measure, the Compassionate Use Act, in 1996.

Allen, a former crack addict who said he started out smoking marijuana, said his worries over wider legalization have been stoked by the explosion in dispensaries growing and selling pot for medical users. He said pot bought in those dispensaries is being resold on the streets of his Oak Park community.

The new initiative would allow California residents to cultivate up to 25 square feet of pot and possess or transport up to 1 ounce. It would include fines and criminal sanctions for providing marijuana to minors.

The initiative would allow cities to tax pot sales and regulate how much pot can be sold legally. It would permit individual cities to ban local sales but let citizens possess and consume marijuana.

Proponents point to a state Field Poll in April that found 56 percent of voters supported taxing and legalizing pot.

Opponent Lovell said voter attitudes will change quickly once they ponder the implications of legalizing pot for general use. Lovell rallied law enforcement groups two years ago to defeat Proposition 5, an initiative that emphasized treatment over jail for nonviolent drug offenders.

He said opponents will argue that legalization would increase drug use among youths and result in more fatal accidents from pot-impaired drivers. “I submit that the support (for marijuana) is illusionary,” he said.