Oakland "Regulate and Tax" Marijuana Legalization Initiative Getting Underway -- Poll Says Public Support Strong 2/20/04

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A group of veteran activists is aiming to make Oakland, California, the first place in the country to endorse legalizing the use and sale of marijuana, and they have polling numbers showing strong support for such a move. Filed with city officials Thursday, the Oakland Cannabis Regulation and Revenue Initiative would direct the Oakland City Council to establish a system of licensed, regulated marijuana sales in the city as soon as legally possible. While legal pot sales would have to await a change in state law and federal law, a second provision in the initiative would have an immediate effect. It directs the city to make personal adult use of marijuana Oakland's lowest law enforcement priority.

"This would be the first time any government entity in the country will have called for what amounts to Amsterdam-style legalization," said Dale Gieringer, California NORML (http://www.canorml.org) executive director and one of the board members of the Oakland Civil Liberties Alliance (OCLA), the newly-formed group behind the effort. "Twenty years ago, we were asking for decriminalization, but we're moving beyond that now. Even though for much of the adult population there is a sort of de facto decriminalization -- not that many adults around here actually get arrested for pot use -- that still leaves the black market, with all its disruptions."

It could work in Oakland. Already picking up the nickname Oaksterdam for the flowering of medical marijuana dispensaries around Telegraph & Broadway, the city appears ready for the move, at least according to results from a poll commissioned by OCLA. In that survey, conducted last month by McGuire Research Services, 71% of Oakland votes supported the taxed and regulated sale of marijuana, while 75% supported making private adult use the lowest law enforcement priority.

"We started with focus groups last summer to get a feel for what Oakland voters wanted," said Claire Lewis of Progressive Communications, the group hired by OCLA to get the campaign underway, "and the poll results coincided with our estimates based on the focus groups. This is a wonderful population for us," she told DRCNet. "It is extremely low in Republicans and high in Democrats, Greens, and independents. Oakland is a very progressive city hit hard by the federal government's war on drugs, and that's reflected in 90% saying the federal drug war isn't working. Oakland voters are ready to reevaluate what is going on."

Focus groups, polls, and setting up initiative campaigns takes money. The Marijuana Policy Project (http://www.mpp.org) came through for the Oakland effort, Lewis said. "We got a grant in MPP's last grant cycle to do the poll and the start up and the petition gathering for the initiative," she explained. "Opinion research can be expensive, but it gives us a solid knowledge base. We'll use the numbers and messages that we found in the polling and the focus groups. We know that what worries Oakland voters is street crime and street dealing. Voters want to keep it off the streets, and they're worried about serious crime. They don't want to waste police resources on cannabis offenses."

In addition to hiring Progressive Communications, OCLA has brought some of the Bay Area's most dedicated activists together. Along with California NORML's Gieringer, OCLA's board includes Oakland politico Joe Devries, who as former head of the city's Public Health and Safety Commission helped make Oakland medical marijuana-friendly; Richard Lee, owner of Oaksterdam landmark the Bulldog Coffee Shop, and Mikki Norris of the Cannabis Consumers Campaign (http://www.cannabisconsumers.org), which seeks to introduce normal pot-smokers to the American public.

"This is exactly where we want to go," said Norris. "OCLA wants to tax and regulate the use of marijuana by adults, and the work of the Cannabis Consumers Campaign fits right into this. We want to get people to come out of the closet to allay the public's fears about what happens to people who smoke cannabis," she told DRCNet. "The long-term goal is to have equal rights in society and not be discriminated against, and this initiative will be a giant step in that direction."

"We've been crafting the language of this right up to the last minute," said Gieringer, "and we set out some parameters. It doesn't apply to kids, there would be licensing for smoking facilities, there would be no advertising on media like billboards and TV. We think Oaklanders are going to be very receptive," he said. "It also directs city lobbyists to lobby for changes in state law that would allow the city to regulate and tax marijuana sales."

The campaign will hit hard on crime and public safety issues, Norris said. "Oakland has serious problems with street crime and murders and kids being exposed. We are offering a solution that would channel some of the street dealing into legitimate businesses that could be held accountable for problems. In the focus groups, a lot of people were really bothered by the street dealing."

The prospect of tax revenues could also prove seductive to social service-starved Oakland voters. "This is arguably the largest cash crop in the state and it's completely untaxed," Gieringer pointed out. "Revenue considerations are very important, and only with full-scale regulation can you tap into those dollars. This could raise real tax money for the city."

With the state of California suffering record deficits and ripple effects hitting cities and counties across the state, it may not be just Oakland voters who get interested. "We can offer at least some sort of solution to the budget crisis," said Norris. "That could get a lot of attention. People across the state are concerned that we're wasting money going after nonviolent offenders and they see a revenue stream just waiting to be tapped into. The cities and counties are hurting, and we have a solution: Tax us!"

While OCLA concedes that state law must change for the initiative to take effect, it argues that the ramifications of a November victory could be large. "There would definitely be a change in the local political climate," said Gieringer. "Politicians would begin to understand that this is a safe issue. And it could also instigate change elsewhere, similar to what happened with medical marijuana. That got started with a local initiative, Proposition P in San Francisco in 1991, then it went on to Santa Cruz and other cities and counties, then the state legislature got interested and passed a bill, only to see it vetoed by Governor Davis. We could follow a similar trajectory, though hopefully without a veto."

City officials now have 15 days to review the initiative and provide it with a title and voters' summary. After that, the signature gathering begins. If all goes well for OCLA, voters in Oakland will get to decide on legalization of marijuana -- in principle, at least -- in November.

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