Gripping his Bic lighter in one hand and a blue bubbler pipe in another, David Goldman leans forward on his living room couch and begins to medicate. The pipe burbles as he takes a long drag of the premium marijuana doctors have recommended for his chronic pain and headaches. He waits a moment to exhale, savours the taste, then releases a long plume of smoke into the air.
"That," he says, "feels wonderful."
It's a feeling Mr. Goldman, 59, hopes all adult Californians will be able to share -- without fear of arrest or jail time--before much longer.
Fourteen years after California became the first jurisdiction in North America to allow the use of marijuana for medical purposes, the state is weighing a history-making ballot measure to legalize the drug for recreational purposes.
Proposition 19, which Californians will approve or reject on Nov. 2, would allow anyone 21 years or older to possess up to one ounce and grow up to 2.25 square metres of marijuana. It gives local governments the authority to tax and regulate the drug's cultivation and retail sale in cannabis cafes or other outlets.
The proposition has once again put left-leaning California -- which only two years ago went through a wrenching debate over gay marriage--on the front lines of America's culture wars.
Public Safety First, the group leading the No campaign on Proposition 19, has raised the spectre of a pot garden in every California backyard and workplaces rife with stoned employees. The Obama administration is also raising its hackles.
In a move aimed at giving California voters pause before voting in favour of legalization, U.S. Attorney-General Eric Holder recently announced the federal government would continue to "vigourously enforce" federal drug laws prohibiting marijuana no matter what California's electorate decides.
"Proposition 19 is not going to pass, even if it passes," said Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, who also promised continued enforcement. The warnings came as momentum for legalization in California seemed to be building.
Despite opposition from almost every major political figure in the state, a Public Policy Institute of California poll in September found 52% of voters backed Proposition 19.
In the wake of Mr. Holder's announcement, a PPIC survey released this week found support had fallen sharply, to 44%.
"There is the potential of some confusion that gets created about whether California does, in fact, have the right to pass Prop 19, which it does," says Stephen Gutwillig, the California state director for the Drug Policy Alliance, an advocacy group supporting the Yes on 19 campaign.
"There may be people who now have questions about whether the federal government may just simply invalidate the election."
For supporters of Proposition 19, legalization of marijuana is an idea whose time has come.
Even as lawmakers and editorialists fight the proposal, the Yes on 19 campaign has built a diverse and somewhat surprising coalition of backers -- including the state's largest labour union, an array of former police chiefs and civil right groups such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
"I think passage of Prop 19 will be a tipping point," said Mr. Goldman, a patients' rights activist who believes the majority of Californians no longer accept the sky-is-falling predictions of the anti-marijuana movement. In the No campaign's arguments, Mr. Goldman hears echoes of the debate in 1996 over medical marijuana.
"They thought the world would come to an end--kids would be helplessly seduced into marijuana; the driving fatality rate would skyrocket, and everyone would be laying out getting stoned all the time," he said. "And lo and behold, that just hasn't happened." Many of the pro-legalization arguments are familiar: that marijuana is less harmful than alcohol or tobacco and that precious law enforcement dollars are being wasted on enforcing minor violations. The most oft-cited statistic? In 2008, there were 61,000 arrests for misdemeanour marijuana possession in California, while 60,000 violent crimes went unsolved.
"To spend one single dollar locking somebody up for cannabis just seems creepy to me," said Julia Negron, a
retired addiction specialist who has joined a group of California mothers supporting the Yes on 19 campaign.
"It's insane -- why would we ever do that? That dollar should go to education. That dollar should go to treatment. That dollar should go anywhere but to the prison system."
On that point, outgoing California Govenor Arnold Schwarzenegger seems to agree. Earlier this month, Mr. Schwarzenegger signed legislation making possession of an ounce of marijuana an infraction rather than a misdemeanour -- putting a violation on par with receiving a parking ticket.
For all the focus on traditional arguments for and against legalization of marijuana, passage of Proposition 19 may rest on the Yes campaign's ability to persuade voters it is the fiscally responsible thing for California to do. With the state desperate for new sources of revenue to tackle a $19-billion annual deficit, legalization supporters contend taxation and regulation of marijuana would provide a much-needed infusion of cash. Marijuana production is estimated to generate $14-billion a year in the state, and pro-legalization campaigners contend the state could collect up to $1.4-billion in taxes by regulating its production.
Others envision California becoming a destination for marijuana tourists, with the Bay Area and northern Humboldt County -- where most of the state's crop is grown -- as the natural hubs. In July, Oakland approved the licensing of four marijuana factories to sell pot wholesale to medical marijuana dispensaries.
A local pot entrepreneur, Richard Lee, has opened Oaksterdam University, which trains students in cultivating and selling marijuana.
"I think the Bay Area is going to develop into a mecca along the lines of Amsterdam," said Chris Conrad, a veteran of California's marijuana battles and a member of the Yes on 19 steering committee. "I think Oakland is more aggressively embracing it because it has more financial problems. San Francisco can afford to act more shy about it. But when it comes right down to it, people are going to start opening up little shops."
Mr. Gutwillig believes existing dispensaries, which supply marijuana legally to patients, could provide the foundation for an emergent retail industry. However, U.S. midterm elections are usually "not the most hospitable climate" to test support for socially liberal causes, Mr. Gutwillig said, because older, more conservative voters are more likely to show up to the ballot box.
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