50 Million Reasons: Marijuana Legalization Is Not a Sure Thing in 2016

Hunter S. Thompson knew best. To take the nation's temperature, and to find the real center of it all, you have to go to Las Vegas. Earlier this month, American Dream-seekers donned clean jeans and crisp button-downs to decamp to the desert to talk business ideas involving grow lights, smell-proof plastic bags, and other ways to tap the “billions” in market potential right around the corner, thanks to the cannabis plant and the end of cannabis Prohibition.

The timing of this year's annual Marijuana Business Conference and Expo couldn't have been finer: It was the week after Alaska, Oregon, and Washington, D.C. all legalized marijuana in a near-clean sweep of the “Marijuana Midterms.” Buoyed by the good news, some 2,500 seekers of marijuana fortunes attended, three times the crowd seen last year. The swell proves that Wall Street is hungry and old money is hungry to enter a market that grows with each new calculation.

Last year, Bay Area-based ArcView Group said the adult recreational marijuana marketplace would reach $10 billion by 2018. Last week, the market surged to $20 billion by 2020, according to the claim from a New York City-based firm. That's some fine growth, considering total recreational sales in Colorado and Washington are roughly $210 million to date. The sky's the limit. Up the ante.

Here in California, politicians are getting ready. Early adopter Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom started making nice to marijuana almost two years ago. And 2016 will be the year legalization happens, says Newsom, who's chairing an American Civil Liberties Union committee that is tasked with crafting ballot language on legalization that California voters would approve (though it's been 13 months and the committee has yet to publish a recommendation).

Even California Attorney General Kamala Harris is feeling it. A few months after laughing off a Sacramento TV reporter's question about whether she'd back legalization, Harris did an about-face and told a top BuzzFeed editor that marijuana legalization seems to have “a certain inevitability about it.”

Better yet, legal marijuana presents no “moral” problems for the Oakland-born career prosecutor. After all, “half my family's from Jamaica,” she told Adam Serwer. Always laughing.

It's obvious these are feel-good times. And it's hard even for cynics not to share the exuberance when adults can legally smoke up outside the headquarters of the Drug Enforcement Administration.

But closer to home, all the buzz — marijuana midterms, billions of dollars, jokes about ganja on the beach — dissipates. For a sobering reality check of where we're really at, head north on Interstate 5. The best warning sign is in Sisikyou County.

There is no weed in Weed.

The city of Weed — with its much-photographed road sign — is red-state, Christian California, where there are more cowboy hats than kale and where the tech boom is measured by the very long drive to the nearest Apple store.

In Weed, voters said “no” to legal marijuana twice. Voters rejected both dispensaries as well as outdoor cultivation earlier this month. Strict rules that nearly outlaw cultivation met voters' approval in Shasta, Butte, Lake, and Nevada counties, California NORML notes, and several cities in Southern California — which has two-thirds of the state's population — also banned dispensaries.

These are exactly the voters that legalization supporters will need to win over in two years. And right now, they are outright hostile.

“How come no one noticed that cannabis lost big in California this election cycle?” one marijuana businessman asked me. I had no answer.

At this early stage, three main groups with the means are laying groundwork to legalize marijuana in California in 2016: Marijuana Policy Project, Drug Policy Alliance, and the Coalition for Cannabis Policy Reform. MPP is known as the group that led the current legalization push, winning over voters in Colorado with the message that “cannabis is safer than alcohol.” Veteran player Drug Policy Alliance has a national name and ability to draw funds from some of the deepest pockets around, though some of the billionaires who bankrolled them, Peter Lewis and John Sperling, died within the last year. CCPR is made up of familiar faces in California labor and legalization circles, including what's left of the Oakland-based committee that put Prop. 19 on the ballot in 2010 (legalization lost by seven percentage points).

Though 2016 presidential candidates are already making calls and opening up offices, it's still far too early to say who has a real chance, or if all three pro-marijuana groups can be counted on to support the same measure.

It's also too early to say who's going to pay for it all.

In 2010, Prop. 19 was hamstrung by fundraising. The campaign eventually came up with $4 million to swing the nearly 10 million people in California who voted.

That's about 40 cents per vote. Compare that to last month's Measure 91 in Oregon. There, legalization proponents had almost $7 million to spend on 1.3 million voters. That's nearly $5 per vote.

Most estimates of what it would take to legalize cannabis here hover in the $12 to $15 million range. But if Oregon's spending was repeated here, we'd need almost $50 million to turn the tide, an incredible number that requires either an extremely wealthy patron or an unprecedented grassroots effort in order for it to become real.

Before 2016 and the billions must come the millions. And those are anything but guaranteed.

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