Activists join together at the 2013 California NORML Conference to make plans for the Golden State's next marijuana initiative.


Hundreds of committed marijuana activists gathered this past weekend at the Fort Mason Center in San Francisco, where California NORML hosted “Cannabis in California: Ending the 100-Year War.” Buoyed by the success of recent campaigns to legalize adult recreational use in Washington State and Colorado, optimistic activists at this upbeat convention clearly hoped to carry that momentum into their own backyard.


No wonder the room was packed for a panel discussion of “The Next California Initiative” that included heavy hitters from the drug policy reform community like Beau Kilmer from the RAND Corporation (and co-author of Marijuana Legalization), Dale Sky Jones from Oaksterdam University, leading attorney Joe Rogoway, Amanda Reiman from Drug Policy Alliance, and philanthropist John Gilmore.


RAND’s Kilmer kicked off the discussion by posing a set of detailed questions, designed to help determine the kind of legalization regime California activists hope to establish. “After legalization, what do you want that after-tax price to be? $400 an ounce? Under $100 per ounce?” Kilmer asked as the crowd consistently cheered for lower prices.


Other questions concerned whether taxes on cannabis should be affected by the CBD to THC ratio and how much money should be allocated for public health messaging. Would the ideal initiative allow for personal cultivation and non-profit cooperatives? Do we want to encourage cannabis tourism? The answers to these questions could also determine how much potential interference an initiative receives from the federal government.


Software pioneer John Gilmore next asserted he didn’t want to be a “Debby Downer,” but warned fellow activists nonetheless that getting California to legalize in 2016 will not be the cakewalk many have been predicting. After reviewing the defeat of a 2008 California initiative (Prop 5) that aimed to keep drug offenders out of prison unless they failed treatment programs three times, Gilmore reminded us that the California Narcotics Officers Association, Indian casinos, prison guards union, unsympathetic politicians – like Dianne Feinstein – and others in strong opposition aren't going away.


“We don’t have a single politician who will send us money.” Gilmore said, floating the idea that if we can offer something of value to groups like the prison guard union, perhaps by using taxes on legal cannabis sales to fund pensions for civil servants, then maybe we can at least partially defuse the opposition. “Instead of paying those guys with our tax money to bust us, we should pay them to retire!”


A lawyer specializing in cannabis defense and co-author of several previous initiatives, Joe Rogoway argued that what we need to win is “pragmatic public policy that is politically viable, that is persuasive, that people will vote for, and that we as a community will stand behind… something that is palatable to other diverse constituencies that might not even like marijuana, but are curious to see how this issue can improve their lives.” As a safeguard against federal intervention, Rogoway says it’s essential to include personal cultivation in any initiative. He also discussed the important differences between an initiative and a constitutional amendment. Amendments are more expensive to fund, since more signatures must be gathered, but the right of adults to use cannabis without fear of punishment would be enshrined in the state constitution, plus an amendment would allow for funds to be dedicated to projects that vital constituencies care about, like schools, parks, and infrastructure.


DPA’s Amanda Reiman also cautioned the room full of giddy marijuana activists to “slow down,” noting that we still have yet to see how the feds will respond to sales and regulatory schemes in Washington and Colorado. Reiman emphasized taking time to carefully build strategies, increase mainstream support with key constituencies (like young mothers), and find ways to reduce or neutralize our opposition. “California is a very large, complicated, and diverse state,” Reiman said, before quoting NORML Deputy Director Paul Armentano, “Legalizing marijuana in California is like trying to legalize marijuana along the entire East Coast, from Maine to South Carolina.”


Like others at the conference, Reiman stressed the need for unity within the marijuana movement, saying that infighting, like what was experienced during the Prop 19 campaign, turns off the electorate. “If we can’t agree with each other, then we really turn off the mainstream coalitions of individuals who would be willing to lend their support.”


As a former spokesperson for Prop 19, and now as President and CEO of Oaksterdam University, Dale Sky Jones is no stranger to how such division hurts progressive movements. She urged focusing on what we can all agree on, namely that “people should not go to jail, lose their homes and families for using cannabis.” As Chairwoman of the Board for the newly forming Coalition for Cannabis Policy Reform (CCPR), Jones invited all stakeholders to join her, saying, “We must make a commitment for 1,380 days, and if we keep focused, we will win... If we can all stay together even if we disagree, we will be strong enough and broad enough to get most of what we want. So I propose unity!”


Unity was the buzzword of the weekend, and if it sticks, California could indeed be starting down the road toward a more cohesive cannabis movement as well as a successful initiative campaign that would finally make cannabis completely legal for adult use. As Harborside Health Center Executive Director Steve DeAngelo said, “I don’t think we’re going to have as easy a time as our brothers and sisters in Colorado and Washington did… In 2016, we're all going to have to come together early, and come together solidly, to make sure we never ever lose another election that we should have won.”


Panels and seminars throughout the weekend also addressed federal interference in Mendocino County, the loss of the Americans for Safe Access federal rescheduling lawsuit, issues with Child Protective Services, the future of regulation in the medical marijuana industry, and ways to create a more diverse marijuana movement.


If you're interested in helping to legalize cannabis in California, contact California NORML or the Coalition for Cannabis Policy Reform.