By Joe Garofoli
Everybody knows California is where cutting-edge change begins. Waves form here, and then the rest of America jumps aboard and rides them across the country.
Still, why was it Washington state that on Tuesday legalized same-sex marriage and recreational marijuana use rather than the home of Harvey Milk and Oaksterdam?
Maine and Maryland also legalized gay nuptials, while Colorado voters gave the green light to recreational weed.
“It’s going to force California to look hard at what worked” in those states, said Diane Goldstein, a retired Redondo Beach Police Department lieutenant who supports the legalization of marijuana.
California voters have had their say on both issues. But they supported Proposition 8’s ban on same-sex marriage in 2008 and voted against legalizing pot in 2010.
But California hasn’t lost its edginess. Politics are just more complicated here.
Besides, when voters elsewhere legalized same-sex marriage and marijuana last week, those outcomes were made possible by groundbreaking work done on previous failures in California.
“Prop. 8 is the best thing to ever happen to the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community,” said Rick Jacobs, founder of the Courage Campaign, a liberal, 750,000-member online network that has been at the forefront of the fight for same-sex marriage.
“Prop. 19 was on the leading edge — it set up these campaigns,” said Richard Lee, the founder of Oakland’s cannabis education center known as Oaksterdam University and the primary funder of the California initiative.
Winning a campaign in the nation’s most populous and diverse state requires a unified front, a smart campaign, weak opposition and a ton of cash. Those factors weren’t in place when Californians cast ballots on marriage and pot.
Money smoothed road
The road to victory was decidedly easier this year in their fellow Western states. Opponents of the Washington marijuana measure raised barely $16,000, while proponents raised more than $6 million.
In California, there have been seven marijuana-related initiatives filed since January 2011. All of them failed to qualify except one, which was withdrawn by the proponent, according to the secretary of state’s office. It costs at least $2 million to collect enough signatures to qualify an initiative in the state.
“One of the issues in California was that there were so many ballot initiatives (this year) that the funders weren’t willing to fund one,” Goldstein said. “They put their money in Washington and Colorado.”
In Seattle, the candidates for sheriff of King County were virtually tripping over themselves to say who was more in favor of legalizing pot.
Two years ago in California, Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca co-chaired the main committee opposed to Prop. 19, while U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder promised in the final days of the campaign to “vigorously enforce” federal drug laws even if Californians passed the measure. This year, Holder was silent on legalization measures.
Law enforcement firm
Should legalization come to California’s ballot again, “law enforcement would continue to oppose it,” said John Lovell, a lobbyist for California law enforcement organizations that led opposition to Prop. 19.
In Washington this year, the Catholic Church was divided in its opposition to same-sex marriage, far less unified than it was in California four years ago.
One thousand Catholics placed their names on a full-page ad in the Seattle Times publicly supporting same-sex marriage. At the same time, the Church of Latter-day Saints played virtually no role in opposing marriage in Washington, which wasn’t the case in the fight over Prop. 8 in California.
Washington state’s leading corporate voices, including Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, donated millions of dollars to the campaign to legalize same-sex marriage, seven times what opponents gave.
“We didn’t have that kind of corporate support during Prop. 8,” said Kate Kendell, executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights in San Francisco. “It would be different next time here.”
No it wouldn’t, said Frank Schubert, the Sacramento strategist who led the opposition to same-sex marriage in California four years ago and in the four states where it was on the ballot last week. He said the same coalition stands ready for the next California battle.
Proponents of same-sex marriage and legal marijuana in California are preparing to put both issues before voters again – perhaps as early as 2014.
In the meantime, the U.S. Supreme Court is to decide in the next month whether to hear the case involving Prop. 8 and the federal Defense of Marriage Act, the 1996 law that barred federal marital benefits such as joint tax filing, Social Security survivors’ payments and immigration sponsorship to same-sex spouses.
Federal appeals courts have found both laws to be unconstitutional acts of discrimination. If the high court were to reject same-sex marriage, backers said they would put a measure before voters again.
With a Democratic supermajority looming in the California Legislature as a result of the Nov. 6 election and Gov. Jerry Brown’s support for gay rights, Jacobs said, “We might not even have to spend our money getting it on the ballot. We could pass it legislatively.”
Pot advocates in California probably won’t have that option, and they are waiting to see how federal law enforcement officials treat the discrepancy between federal and state laws in Colorado and Washington.
In any case, a pot legalization initiative will need campaign donors. But Oaksterdam University’s Lee said he won’t be one of them.
“Nope,” Lee said. “I spent all mine on Prop. 19.”
— Reach Joe Garofoli at firstname.lastname@example.org