California: Odd Bedfellows in the Pro-Pot Ballot Initiative

California's pot proponents have the support of a few counterintuitive allies.

April 2, 2010, 5:26 PM

April 5, 2010 — -- An initiative to legalize marijuana in California will appear on the November ballot and both sides of the debate are wasting no time trying to smoke out the opposition.

But in an interesting wrinkle, California's pro-pot proponents are gaining support from some unlikely allies.

"We're definitely getting more support every day from people who haven't supported us in the past," says Richard Lee, the businessman and activist who led the effort that collected 690,000 signatures to get the initiative on the ballot.

A new nationwide poll by Pew Research Center suggests that opponents of legalized pot still comprise the majority (52 percent), and include the usual suspects: older Americans, conservatives and mothers of teenagers. In California, the state Republican party and the California Police Chiefs Association are just saying No to the ballot initiative.

But supporters of the Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis Act (note the careful omission of language such as "legalize" and "marijuana") say that this could be one way to help solve the state's crushing budget problems. The initiative would make it legal for anyone 21 and older to possess an ounce of marijuana and/or grow whatever can fit in a 5-by-5-foot plot. It would permit cities and counties to decide whether to allow sales and tax the proceeds.

This detail has won over surprising bedfellows, including members of the organized labor community, the state's chapter of the NAACP and some in the law enforcement community.

Lee credits the economy -- California's debt is up to 37 percent of its economic output, according to one calculation -- with providing a boost to his campaign. "It's history repeating itself," he tells ABC News. "Like [the repeal of] alcohol prohibition during the Great Depression, we now have the Great Recession."

Legalization Could Lead to Jobs for Organized Labor

Dan Rush of the United Food & Commercial Workers International Union is careful to point out that his organization has not yet officially endorsed the ballot initiative. But after looking into the plan to tax and regulate the herb, Rush admits to liking what he sees.

"I believe it will create tens of thousands of sustainable, single-earner union jobs in the long run," he tells ABC News. "All the way from the agricultural process to the retail process to the food processing process to the transportation process."

Rush points to a California Board of Equalization analysis that estimates legalizing and taxing pot in California could yield $1.4 billion in revenue.

"That $1.4 billion in sales tax goes directly into the general fund," he says. "And California is closing schools, fire departments, emergency rooms, laying off the nurses, firefighters and police we can't afford to pay because we don't have any tax revenue."

Rush predicts that organized labor across the board will come out in official support of the initiative "some time around September or October" of this year.

One group that has already come out in official support for the first time ever is the California NAACP. But instead of framing it as a jobs or revenue issue, California NAACP President Alice Huffman is painting it as a civil rights matter.

"In California African Americans make up 7 percent of the population, but 22 percent of the marijuana arrests," she says. "I see it as a civil rights issue because so many of our young people get their start in the criminal justice system over a joint."

Huffman, who also is the chairwoman of the national NAACP's criminal justice board, said the national leadership hasn't released a position on her state's impending vote.

But she adds that "if we want to rescue our young people and keep them out of prison, we have to not only attack the education system but also the dysfunctional parts of the system that's criminalizing our children disproportionately and causing them lifelong harm."

Marijuana possession arrests of teenagers of color rose from 3,100 in 1990 to 16,300 in 2008 -- an arrest surge that is 300 percent greater than population growth in that group -- according to the California Department of Justice. In 1990 half of the state's arrestees were nonwhite. By 2008 that figure had surged to 62 percent.

Those arrests place a burden on the law enforcement system. So, while the statewide police chiefs association has come out against the ballot initiative, there are many within the law enforcement community who are breaking with the official line. Jeffrey Studdard, a former school district police officer and reserve L.A. County sheriff's deputy, literally lends his voice in support of the initiative in its first radio ad.

Judge James Gray is a former presiding judge of the Orange County Superior Court, a former federal prosecutor and Navy JAG attorney -- a self-described "conservative judge in a conservative county appointed by a conservative governor" -- is a strong supporter of the initiative.

"Nobody today is selling Jim Beam bourbon to your high school student on their campus. They're selling marijuana and methamphetamines," he says. By keeping marijuana illegal "you give up everything having to do with its quality, its price, its place of sale and everything else."

Gray says many of his former colleagues on the bench and the police force agree with him but fear political fallout if they were to speak out. "The one thing we could do to make the job [of policing] less dangerous would be to legitimize and control the sale of these illegal drugs."

The California Police Chiefs Association, however, argues that this is a mischaracterization of the work they do. They just don't spend their time on cases involving less than an ounce. If someone is caught with less than an ounce of pot now it's a citation with a small fine.

Pastor Ron Allen of Sacramento is one of the leaders of a coalition of cops and clergy who say legalizing marijuana will lead to the use of harder drugs and only cause more problems for society.

For Allen, this is also a personal crusade. He was a crack cocaine addict for seven years, and he says it all started with marijuana.

Passage "would devastate California to the fullest extent. ... This is the worst thing that California could ever try to do," Allen said.

In an ironic twist, some of the more strident opponents to the legalization of marijuana are less likely to speak out -- the people who grow it illegally today. Once the black market is made legitimate, growers stand to see their prices drop.

"It's been disappointing to see people more concerned with their personal well-being than what's good for society," says Lee, the man behind the initiative. "I got into it to stop the violence and get better law enforcement."

Lee already makes his living from the weed. The Oakland, Calif., man's business is pot, from his coffee house selling medical marijuana, to his trade school for marijuana growers, Oaksterdam University.

Though he spent $1 million getting the question onto November's ballot, the fight is far from over. Lee puts the odds at "50-50" for whether his state votes to legalize pot, or whether his dreams go up in smoke.