LOS ANGELES -- Proposition 19, which would legalize marijuana in California, is the most talked-about ballot initiative in the country. If it passes, it would revolutionize the state's drug laws, provoke a clash with the federal government and fire up the movement to pass similar laws in other states -- even other countries. It's become a staple for national talk shows and comedians.
But the high-profile issue is playing out in a surprisingly low-profile campaign. With the competitive top-of-the-ticket races siphoning away the big bucks, neither side has attracted the money to mount a serious TV ad campaign, the most effective way to reach the state's 17 million voters.
Political strategists consider ballot measures without much money to be long shots, but supporters have pinned their hopes on a grass-roots campaign that has cranked up in recent weeks, relying on volunteers nationwide to canvass on college campuses and call swing voters using a Web-based phone-bank system.
An influx of donations -- more than $660,000 so far this month -- will allow the campaign to target young people, who overwhelmingly tell pollsters they want to see pot legalized, and African-Americans and Latinos, who will be told the war on drugs incarcerates them at higher rates than whites.
And the endorsement of the Service Employees International Union and the United Food and Commercial Workers, which see legalized marijuana as an industry that could create union jobs, means slate mailers will reach about 900,000 members and hundreds of volunteers will make calls and walk precincts.
Proposition 19 would allow people 21 and older to grow up to 25 square feet of marijuana and possess up to an ounce, and authorizes cities and counties to approve commercial cultivation, retail sales and taxation.
The measure has remained steadily ahead in most polls, with the support of about half of the electorate. If it passes Nov. 2, it might be due to the ardent believers, many in their 20s, who are the ground troops.
Elizabeth Tauro and Matt Wolfrom, senior public policy majors at the University of Southern California, recently waylaid students with shouts of "Yes on 19! Legalize marijuana!" Michael Howard, who hopes to open a delivery service, led eight volunteers ejected from the Brewery ArtWalk in Los Angeles onto sizzling sidewalks, where they cheerfully chanted and passed out literature for hours.
In the Oakland headquarters of Yes on 19, David Meiler, dubbed "Super Dave" by the campaign, said he has called thousands of voters, many of them middle-aged mothers, to "plant a little seed in their heads." The campaign says it has more than 50 volunteers in Oakland and is making about 6,000 calls a day.
But some once-skeptical drug-reform advocates now believe the campaign has a shot. Slow to back the proposition -- the inspiration of Richard Lee, an Oakland medical marijuana entrepreneur -- they are soliciting donations, lending staff and coordinating strategy. The Drug Policy Alliance, which has raised millions for past California initiatives, reeled in more than $310,000 in the last two weeks.
"Win or lose, this thing -- for not a great investment of money -- has generated an extraordinary dialogue and debate," said Ethan Nadelmann, the alliance's executive director. "Even if you accept that it's not going to win, there's no better time to invest a dollar to move the ball down the field."
Public Safety First, the main opposition campaign, is backed by state law enforcement groups and the Chamber of Commerce, which sent a letter to a couple hundred of its largest members. But it has much less money and has been outraised by a 10-to-1 margin this month. "Our big focus right now continues to be trying to get some money in the door," said Roger Salazar, a spokesman. He declined to reveal the campaign's strategy, other than to say it plans a series of media events throughout the state.
With Election Day two weeks away, both sides are relying heavily on forums, news conferences and talk shows and have found the extensive news coverage remarkable. "We probably lead the league in radio, television and print media interviews," Salazar said. "It's out of control," said Dale Sky Jones, a spokeswoman for Yes on 19. "I've been on Fox News, like, seven times in eight days." Voters may yet see mailers, Web videos, radio and cable TV ads and celebrity endorsements.
More than eight out of 10 voters have told pollsters they are aware of the initiative. And a Public Policy Institute of California poll last month caused a stir. It found that likely voters favor legal marijuana more than they favor any of the candidates for governor and senator, leading comedian Stephen Colbert to quip: "If Prop. 19 were a human, it would be the most popular candidate in California."
Mark Baldassare, who supervised the poll, said he would not discount the possibility that voters will approve Proposition 19. "They're definitely giving it a look," he said.
That open-mindedness bucks heavy opposition. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and every major candidate for statewide office oppose it. At least 38 newspapers in California have editorialized against it. The presidents of Mexico and Colombia said it would disrupt the fight against drug traffickers. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has vowed to "vigorously enforce" federal narcotics laws. The drug czar, Gil Kerlikowske, has led the Obama administration's opposition but is wary of triggering a backlash by coming to California. "The last thing people want to see is someone parachuting into their state from inside the Beltway," he said.
Proponents are putting tremendous stock in the youth vote. Democrats have begun to study whether legalization measures on state ballots in 2012 could boost turnout for the presidential election.
But a visit to the USC campus suggests that might take some groundwork.
Young voters often do not show up for midterm elections. For every skateboarder who skidded to an abrupt stop with a "Ho, yeah!" when asked to support Proposition 19, many others walked, cycled or rolled past without stopping or offered a curt "No, thanks." The most common response among those who stopped: "Sure, why not?"
Tauro and Wolfrom, in shades and sandals, repeatedly stepped into the stream of students, handing out brochures and stickers. They are two of the three most active members of the fledgling USC chapter of Students for Sensible Drug Policy. They were relentlessly upbeat. Wolfrom watched as a student rode off with a "Yes We Cannabis" sticker and steered toward a trash can. "He put it on! Good!" he said.
The national student organization is spending a $100,000 donation to get college students to vote. And many chapters will host pizza parties to call voters.
The campaign is also targeting black and Latino voters. The state NAACP and the Latino Voters League back the measure, calling it an issue of civil rights.
Alice Huffman, the formidable head of the state NAACP, steered the group toward an endorsement, angering some black ministers. "I am not advocating for a higher use of drugs. I am advocating for it not to be a crime," she said. "I just want my young people not to go to jail."
She printed 500,000 copies of an eight-page newspaper on elections important to minorities and repeatedly touts Proposition 19, calling the war on drugs "a war waged against African-American and Latino children." It will be mailed to 150,000 voters and inserted in black newspapers. She is also setting up a phone bank and sending letters to 25,000 NAACP members. "If they are not ready to go, we're going to whip them into shape," she said.
Antonio Gonzalez, who runs the Latino Voters League, plans to target 100,000 young and newly registered Latino voters with mail, e-mail, text messages and calls. Some recent polls have shown Latinos supporting the measure, a reversal from earlier surveys. "I think we're catching the sails," he said.
But a recent festival for Latino voters in Los Angeles drew a sparse crowd. Diego Perez, who ran a table for Proposition 19, had time to engage in a long conversation with an elderly man. "He's probably got grandkids and stuff," he said. "If we change his mind, oh my goodness."
The opponents include several homespun organizations such as Citizens Against Legalizing Marijuana, about 15 people who printed 20,000 brochures, sent 250 "facts packs" to the media and speak at every opportunity. "It's a mission of faith," said Carla Lowe, who became involved in the issue as a PTA president in the late 1970s. "We're doing the best we can, and at least we will never be guilty of not having tried."
Alexandra Datig runs Nip It In The Bud 2010. She is the organization. "I can tell you this campaign is killing me," she said. She has raised a few thousand dollars, designed a website, e-mailed news releases, debated and appeared on television. "I don't want to live next door to a pothead and have pothead smoke coming into my house," said Datig, who said she used to be addicted to marijuana and other drugs. "I really believe passionately with every fiber of my being that this is a bad idea."
But it's Public Safety First that could stand between would-be marijuana legalizers and victory. It's short on money but not on savvy. It's run by the same strategists who were outspent two years ago and still trounced a measure that would have loosened drug sentences.
The Proposition 19 campaign expects a major assault. "I am anticipating that we are going to get hit and hit hard," Jones said. "I think we are going to see the usual messengers freaking out soccer moms."
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