After the historic marijuana midterms, a seven-hundred-day battle for the Golden State begins

David Downs, East Bay Express

As the dust settles from the historic marijuana midterm election of 2014, a few things have become clear: Namely, Californians will vote on ending cannabis prohibition in 2016. But change is far from inevitable.

The decisive cannabis-legalization victories in Oregon, Alaska, and Washington, DC, on November 4 continued the trend established by voters in Colorado and Washington in 2012. The hat trick in this year's midterm election also guarantees that the most experienced, successful groups — Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) and Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) — will work to legalize pot in California in 2016.

A loose alliance has formed that includes MPP, DPA, California NORML, and the still-vital coalition left over from Proposition 19 in 2010 — now dubbed Reform CA. Reform CA includes the NAACP, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, and segments of the California cannabis industry, such as the Emerald Growers Association.

MPP Legislative Analyst Chris Lindsey said the group is in the early stages of staffing up. "MPP is going to be one of many organizations involved in this," he said. "California is too big for this to be a one-organization effort."

In Oakland, Reform CA's Dale Jones said the coalition could need $10 million to run a successful ballot measure in 2016, and is currently working to grow its 45,000-strong, active email list. Reform CA donation boxes should start popping up at Oakland, San Francisco, and Los Angeles dispensaries this December, she said. "Our goal is to have a California that is educated and ready vote in 2016 — and ready to donate before that," she said.

California will be a gargantuan lift for even the biggest coalition. With 38 million people, the state is 5.5 times bigger than the biggest legalization state so far — Washington, which has a population of 6.9 million. "People don't realize the massive scale of the undertaking we're talking about," Jones said. "I am concerned for money. California could be the state that draws organized opposition. We need to be ready for that."

But California, not Washington, got the ball rolling in 1996, noted Dale Gieringer of California NORML. "And we have the biggest [cannabis] industry."

Polls show that a slim majority of state voters support ending prohibition. But legalization is less popular among older Democrats, women, minorities, and traditional conservatives.

Reformers will face an alliance of cops, bureaucrats, businesses, and politicians — not to mention a possible federal reaction.

Between now and 2016, however, new medical marijuana regulations or adult-use laws are unlikely to emerge from Sacramento, because the political make-up of the legislature did not change that much in the midterm election, said Don Duncan, organizer for Americans for Safe Access.

But one significant change that did occur on November 4 was the passage of Proposition 47, the "Reduced Penalties for Some Crimes Initiative" — which made possession of hashish and small amounts of other drugs a misdemeanor instead of a felony. Prop 47 received 59 percent of the vote in an election in which many young Democratic voters stayed away from the polls. That fact buoyed reformers.

The list of opponents to Prop 47 read like a primer on the prison-industrial complex. It was stacked with fearmongering "victims' rights" groups, county sheriffs associations, district attorneys, correctional supervisors, and drug court professionals — in addition to US Senator Dianne Feinstein. That same group is expected to oppose pot legalization in 2016. Yet, this year, Prop 47 won in a landslide.

"It shows the gap there is between the centers of power and government, and the actual people," Gieringer said. Criminal justice, he said, is yet another area in which politicians are captured by the industry — the prison-industrial complex, in this case.

And that industry isn't going to go quietly into that good night. After Prop 47's passage, opponents took to the media to promise increases in crime. "With law enforcement, the sky is always about to fall," said Lindsey. "Their bread and butter is keeping people scared. Well, voters said, 'We're really just kind of sick of spending money on this stuff.'"

The California midterm election also saw more than a dozen local pro-medical marijuana initiatives fail in the state — even though every proposed medical cannabis tax passed. Going forward, more cities and counties will use their right to ban not only dispensaries, but also cultivation: both indoors and outdoors. Almost half of all California cities now have dispensary bans, said Duncan.

"I keep thinking, 'How can it get much worse?'" said Ellen Komp, deputy director for California NORML.

Conversely, cities in the East Bay and beyond will add new dispensaries in the next year or two, and a slew of cities, such as Santa Ana and San Jose will permit them for the first time.

While the industry is emboldened like never before, federal and local raids on growers and stores will also continue in 2015. Deputy Attorney General James Cole chided California in an October 16 article in the Los Angeles Times, stating, "If you don't want us prosecuting [marijuana users] in your state, then get your regulatory act together." The DEA raided well-known LA collective The Farmacy on October 28. Regional task forces also will keep chopping plants and busting alleged traffickers in the Emerald Triangle and in Central and Southern California.

Despite the headwinds, reformers are moving full-steam ahead, and liken past setbacks to the push for marriage equality. "The first time out you don't win, but then you get the momentum in your favor," Komp said. "I think the train has left the station."