Cannabis flower is on display at River Rock marijuana dispensary in Denver on April 25, 2016. (Vince Chandler, The Denver Post)

California marijuana legalization is on track, but still not a sure thing

SANTA ANA, Calif. — The signatures are still being tallied and verified, but the California marijuana legalization initiative is on track to easily qualify for the ballot this November.

Early Secretary of State reports show the Adult Use of Marijuana Act, which is backed by Silicon Valley billionaire Sean Parker, submitted more than the needed 365,880 signatures just in Southern California. And more than three quarters of the signatures sampled from counties that have completed the verification process – 15 out of 58 in the state – have been deemed valid. In all, some 600,000 petition signatures were submitted earlier this month.

“Our measure is blessed with an enthusiastic and active base of support, so signature gathering has been robust and relatively cost effective,” campaign spokesman Jason Kinney said. “In other words, we’re right where we want to be.”

It may be a foregone conclusion that legalization will be on the ballot, but it’s not a sure thing that voters on Nov. 8 will give adults a green light to use marijuana.

A growing number of public safety groups are speaking out against legalization. And there’s still division over the complex initiative among members of the state’s diverse marijuana industry, which has taken root over the 20 years since use of medical cannabis use was legalized.

That means Californians can expect to hear a lot about pot over the next six months, as backers and detractors ratchet up their campaigns.


The push to legalize adult use of marijuana this year in California has included no fewer than 19 separate initiatives. Most of those never gathered a single signature, and none reached 25 percent of the signatures needed to get on the statewide ballot except the Adult Use of Marijuana Act.

Los Angeles County led the pack in supporting the initiative, contributing 35 percent of the submitted signatures, according to figures reported to the Secretary of State.

San Diego County added 57,660 signatures – more than twice the number collected in Orange County. While the counties are similar in size, San Diego is a bit more blue, with 62 percent of voters there registered as Democrats or undeclared vs. 55 percent of Orange County voters.

Also beating Orange County with more than 26,000 signatures each were smaller Riverside and San Bernardino counties, where proponents set up a booth at High Times Cannabis Cup festival in April.

The act continues to gather a range of political support, including Democratic gubernatorial candidate Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, the California Medical Association and U.S. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Costa Mesa, who recently acknowledged his own use of topical medical marijuana to treat arthritis.

“As a Republican who believes in individual freedom, limited government and states’ rights, I believe that it’s time for California to lead the nation and create a safe, legal system for the responsible adult use of marijuana,” Rohrabacher said.

Even presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, during rallies throughout the state this week, said he’d vote for the initiative if he could.

Backers of the measure also are gathering far more campaign cash. More than $3.5 million has been raised just to get the initiative on the ballot.

Lynne Lyman – state director of the Drug Policy Alliance, a nonprofit that advocates for drug law reform and has donated $750,000 – said she expects they will raise between $10 million and $20 million by Nov. 8.

The 600,000 signatures submitted by legalization proponents earlier this month are being randomly checked by each of the state’s 58 counties.

Signers who aren’t registered to vote, signatures that don’t match or addresses that don’t correspond with state records are the leading reasons for signatures being found invalid, according to Orange County Registrar of Voters Neal Kelley, whose office is still sampling signatures collected here.

If the current 77 percent validity rate continues, the measure would have roughly 462,000 qualifying signatures, or 26 percent more than required to make the ballot.


Critics and some medical marijuana advocates believe voter approval of the proposed measure is not assured – or necessarily the best approach to legalization.

“I’m very confident saying that the majority of Californians are ready for an end to prohibition,” said Hezekiah Allen, executive director of the California Growers Association, a coalition of 550 cannabis businesses. “It’s been a costly failure.”

But he said questions remain about what may lurk in the details of the dense, 62-page Adult Use of Marijuana Act.

In a policy meeting of his association this week, Allen said members were “nowhere near” having a unified position on the initiative, with some voicing concerns over how both medical marijuana patients and small businesses might be swallowed up by the proposed new legalized, recreational pot industry.

“I think there are a lot of folks in the community that think we could have done a better job” in crafting the ballot measure, Allen said.

Then there’s the opposition campaign. A committee made up of activists who fought legalization in 2010 has collected $60,000 largely from law enforcement and health groups who cite safety concerns. In addition, the Teamsters union is objecting to provisions of the initiative that would regulate the transportation and delivery of legal pot.

The California Association of Highway Patrolmen also registered its opposition this week, with president Doug Villars saying legalization “will make California’s highways and roads more dangerous.”

However, Kinney – a political consultant who helped Newsom become lieutenant governor – points to recent polling, which shows six in 10 voters favor regulating the drug for recreational use. He said legalizing recreational use of pot is “working in other states and that’s what the Adult Use of Marijuana Act represents.”

Also predicting success is Anna Boyce, a retired Mission Viejo nurse, who coauthored California’s medical marijuana law 20 years ago after seeing it help her late husband in his battle with cancer.

Though she’s never tried pot and doesn’t particularly like the idea of recreational use, Boyce said she believes legalizing it will finally take away the drug’s stigma and give medical marijuana patients the access they need.

“If it’s the only way that we can get some success, some assistance,” she said, “I’m going to have to vote for it.”

What would the California marijuana legalization initiative do?

The Adult Use of Marijuana Act would allow Californians 21 and older to possess up to an ounce of marijuana, up to 8 grams of concentrated cannabis and up to six plants.

The citizen-driven initiative would prohibit driving while impaired, giving cannabis to minors or consuming it in public. And it includes provisions for licensing, testing, labeling, advertising and local control over marijuana businesses.

The act also establishes a 15 percent sales tax, plus a tax by weight for growers. The Legislative Analyst’s Office anticipates revenues could top $1 billion annually.

New York giving critically ill fast track to medical marijuana
A customer checks the aroma of a sample at Canna Care, a medical marijuana dispensary in Sacramento, Calif., on Aug. 19, 2015. (Rich Pedroncelli, The Associated Press)

Who’s supporting the effort?

The Adult Use of Marijuana Act has raised more than $3.5 million from five sources:
• $1 million from Sean Parker, who co-founded Napster and was Facebook’s first president
• $750,000 from The New Approach PAC, a legacy of Progressive insurance mogul Peter Lewis, that supported Oregon’s 2014 marijuana legalization
• $750,000 from Irvine-based Weedmaps, a Yelp-style service for cannabis retailers founded by Justin Hartfield
• $750,000 from Drug Policy Action, the advocacy arm of Drug Policy Alliance, which aims to end the War on Drugs
• $250,000 from Nicholas Pritzker, Hyatt Hotel heir and billionaire investor
Source: Secretary of State

Who’s opposing it?

The Coalition for Responsible Drug Policies, sponsored by the Public Safety Institute, has raised $60,000 from seven sources:
• $25,000 from California Teamsters, a union representing workers largely in the trucking and warehouse industries
• $10,000 from Sam Action, Inc., a nonprofit alliance of mental and public health professionals that oppose marijuana legalization
• $5,000 from California Correctional Supervisors Organization, a union representing managers who work for the state prison and hospital systems
• $5,000 from Riverside Sheriffs Association, the union representing Riverside County sheriff’s deputies
• $5,000 from Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs State PAC, the union representing L.A. County deputies
• $5,000 from Los Angeles Police Protective League, which represents Los Angeles Police Department officers
• $5,000 from California Hospitals Committee on Issues, a public policy arm of the California Hospital Association
Source: Secretary of State

Contact the writer: 714-796-7963 or

This story was first published on