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Tea Leaves 

California catches up to its own pot promise

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It's marijuana harvest season in the North Bay, and that comes with what's now a ritualistic display in the local newspapers: images of police pulling marijuana plants out of the earth, as though the plant itself were some sort of criminal.

As our news story this week notes, Californians will have a chance in 2016 to legalize the herb via a statewide referendum. There was a brief flurry of pro-legalization activity this year, but that was just some activists getting antsy to legalize.

"Some groups started independent campaigns, to see if they could put something together for 2014," says Dale Gieringer, director of California NORML, after a poll from late 2013 showed high support for a legalization initiative this year.

"They were all rush jobs," he says. "It was a seat-of-the-pants, sort of last-minute effort, which was obviously not coordinated with anybody."

He says 2016 is the best time to put a legalization measure on the ballot. In the meantime, activists can watch the unfolding legalization scene in Colorado and Washington and address any unanticipated snafus that may arise.

California has led the way on numerous issues of great social importance, and in a screwy way, it's done so with marijuana too. Having been the first state to legalize medical marijuana, via 1996's Proposition 215, California then led the nation in revanchist federal crackdowns on dispensaries.

Conversely, the feds stood by as Colorado and Washington legalized cannabis.

But with 65 percent of Californians now supporting legalization, state politicians have clearly failed to reflect the will of the people on this issue. The state that was once at the forefront of marijuana reform is now playing catch-up.

The California Democratic Party supports legalization in its official party plank. But there's this, too: the mirage of a Democratic supermajority in Sacramento. "Even though the Democrats have a two-thirds majority," says Gieringer, "a lot of them are in swing districts in the Central Valley, and they are very skittish about marijuana, medical or otherwise.'

As for the dispensary crackdown, the lesson for other states was that they could play a game of cannabis "chicken" with the feds and get away with it, given the torrent of bad press that met the crackdown.

But California has continued to drop the ball, says Tamar Todd, Berkeley-based director of marijuana law and policy with the Drug Policy Alliance. She highlights the ongoing "failure of the Legislature to create meaningful legislation in the aftermath of 215" that would create a proper regulatory framework for the dispensaries.

As California lawmakers fumbled on the medical regulatory front, the dispensary crackdown gave political space to other states to move in the direction of legalization. New York decriminalized pot, with a message to the feds: If you want to shut it down, go right ahead.

"They tried that in California," says Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance.

In the last years of his failed presidency, "Bush went all out" to try and shut down the new world of legal medical weed, Piper says. In the first years of his then-promising presidency, he adds, "Obama really went all out."

Time to go all in for legalization, Todd says. "Responsible policymakers need to realize that voters are on board."

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