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North Coast marijuana advocates encouraged by legalization in other states

Published: Tuesday, November 13, 2012 at 8:50 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, November 13, 2012 at 8:50 a.m.

North Coast marijuana advocates are buzzing about the historic elections in Colorado and Washington where voters legalized marijuana for recreational purposes.

They say they're hopeful Californians will be persuaded to take a similar step when they see how the two western states benefit over the next few years.

Call it a contact high of sorts.

"Legalization of cannabis has been essentially green-lighted to go forward in California," said Santa Rosa attorney Joe Rogoway, who is part of a grassroots effort to make pot legal. "It's no longer a question of 'if' but of 'when'."

Rogoway isn't the only person who's giddy at the prospect of ending California's marijuana prohibition.

Supporters everywhere are anticipating a domino effect from the unprecedented vote -- which allows Colorado and Washington residents 21 and older to possess up to an ounce of pot and establishes future regulatory plans for retail sales, production and distribution.

Many believe California's time will come in 2016 -- the next election when a large number of young voters will go to the polls.

Aaron Smith, a former Santa Rosa resident and executive director of the National Cannabis Industry Association, said people will be convinced it's the right thing to do when they see millions of dollars in tax revenue roll into Colorado and Washington.

As an anticipated windfall is spent on things like schools and roads, sentiment in California should grow strongly in favor of legalization, Smith said.

"We are in a completely different landscape now after what happened in Colorado and Washington," Smith said. "Support is growing exponentially."

But uncertainties remain, including the fact that marijuana remains illegal under federal law. The Justice Department has not said whether it will block the new laws in Colorado and Washington but indicated its continued opposition.

And some question whether Californians really want to legalize pot. The idea was rejected by voters in 2010 and there's been nothing to indicate a change in that thinking, said Paul Armentano, deputy director of National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

Polling would need to show 60 percent in support to attract major financial backers needed to get a measure on the ballot and ensure ballot-box success, he said.

Before ill-fated Proposition 19, polls showed about 52 percent favored legalization, Armentano said.

The measure, which cost backers $3.5 million, lost with about 46 percent of the vote.

"There's a limited universe of money men," said Armentano. "Nobody likes to back a losing campaign."

As it stands, state law allows people with doctor recommendations to possess and grow limited amounts of marijuana.

Sonoma County allows qualified patients to have up to three pounds of processed bud and as many as 30 plants.

However, the medical requirement could be lifted if voters like what they see in Colorado and Washington. Armentano put California on a short list of a half-dozen states that might pursue the next legalization measure.

"It's hard to convince Californians to change," he said. "They are comfortable right now. Maybe when they look at Colorado and Washington, they will say it can be better."

Others believe that's exactly what is going to happen.

Rogoway said voters will be swayed by the financial benefits. Also, he said drafters of the next measure will correct mistakes of the past and offer a single initiative instead of multiple proposals.

Smith said celebrity donors are starting to emerge. Money from industry sources in Colorado and Washington could fuel the campaign, which would be timed to the election with younger voters.

"We've shown it's possible to pass these sorts of measures in states like Colorado, which is generally more conservative," Smith said. "The time will be ripe for California in 2016."

You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 568-5312 or paul.payne@pressdemocrat.com.

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