Will California Legalize in 2016?

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California is like a gleaming beacon of hope to the marijuana reform movement. It’s the most populous state in the country, cannabis has been legal there for medical use since 1996, and public support for legalization is high.

Medical Marijuana Doctors, Venice Beach, CaliforniaBut will that translate to victory in 2016? Advocates are pushing now to put the issue on the November statewide ballot. Despite a fair amount of infighting among competing groups, it is becoming increasingly likely marijuana legalization will go before voters.

Still, nothing is guaranteed. California has tried to legalize twice before, with mixed but always poor results. The first effort, in 2010, died at the polls amid relatively weak public support and a deeply divided reform movement.

Competing ballot initiatives fail to gather momentum

Those divides reappeared four years later, when several new groups tried to get legalization on the ballot. They failed, mostly because no one could settle on a single proposal. Every group wanted to sell its own initiative, and because of that, none even made the ballot.

It didn’t help that 2014 was an off-year election. There were no presidential candidates on the ballot, and that usually means much lower voter turnout. That, in turn, translates to a much older, more conservative electorate – exactly the kind of voters likely to shoot down a legalization petition.

Reform groups join forces

A full year remains until November, but already the same divisions have reappeared. On one side are the serious, well-funded organizations with national connections. The group led by tech billionaire Sean Parker took the lead role in this category when a large competitor threw his weight behind them in December.

On the other side are the local, ideology-minded activists who are pushing for the least restrictive options possible, with large if not unlimited allowances for cultivation and possession. Though these petitions appeal to many grassroots organizers and volunteers, they’re much harder to sell with voters. Most observers say these efforts are impractical and doomed to failure.

So will legalization make the ballot this time around – and if it does, what form will it take?

Strong voter support

Marijuana PlantOf course, these are as yet unanswerable questions. But with public support for full marijuana reform well over 50 percent in the Golden State, the odds are good that voters will get the final say on Election Day. Since this is a presidential election year, young voters who support legalization are likely to turn out in large numbers, potentially guaranteeing success.

We also don’t know yet what legalization will look like when it arrives (and it will arrive eventually). But Parker’s proposal would allow adults over 21 to buy, possess, and use up to one ounce of marijuana and grow as many as six plants at home. A 15 percent sales tax would apply to retail sales, while growers would be taxed separately. Some of the money would pay for anti-drug campaigns aimed at minors.

Unrealistic libertarian proposals will be rejected

Those limits undoubtedly chafe some activists who want more freedom, a more libertarian approach with no possession caps and unlimited grow rights. But that simply isn’t realistic. Mainstream voters are the key to legalization in California, and they will reject any plan that doesn’t impose at least some substantial regulation on the drug.

Thankfully, Parker’s petition is picking up steam as volunteers gather signatures across the state. With the most serious competition out of the way, he is clear to win endorsements and funding from the nation’s largest pro-cannabis groups. It can easily cost several million dollars to pass a public initiative in California.

So, in the end, yes, California is a good bet to legalize in November. If it does, the game will be up, and it will be just a matter of time before New York, Massachusetts, Michigan, Illinois, and other heavily populated states follow suit. And as they go, so goes the rest of America.

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