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California considers a truce in the war on pot Add to ...

Early last year, David Meiler was a student at a community college in Buffalo, seeing only dead ends in the grim economy of upstate New York. So like many young people before him, he headed west, lured by a vision of a burgeoning industry. It wasn't software, or green technology, or show business. It was marijuana.

Thanks to a measure on November's ballot, California is surprisingly close to becoming the first U.S. state to legalize recreational use of the drug. Mr. Meiler, 22, is one of the volunteers devoting his days to the cause. Indifferent toward politics until now, he has made more than 20,000 calls to voters in the last two months.

"I had a chance to change things and I had to take it," he says. "I'm going to get a legal job in the cannabis industry and be able to provide for myself."

Long a laboratory of social change in the United States, California is cooking up something unusual. Voters will decide on a measure that would allow Californians to possess and grow small amounts of pot, while giving local governments the right to tax and regulate the marijuana business.

To its supporters, the measure - called Proposition 19 - is a way to correct long-running failures in drug policy and deliver revenue to cash-strapped cities. Its opponents say that's bunk, arguing the initiative would increase the number of impaired drivers on the road, produce a hodgepodge of local laws, and set the state on a collision course with federal authorities.

No candidate for statewide office is supporting the measure. Jerry Brown, the Democratic candidate for governor, has even suggested it's a question of productivity. "We've got to compete with China, and if everybody's stoned, how the hell are we going to make it?" he said this summer.

Yet judging from the polls, most Californians don't share that concern. Recent surveys - with one exception - show the "yes" forces in the lead, though much could change. Young voters are especially enthused. On Facebook, the "Yes on Prop 19" campaign has collected more than 200,000 well-wishers (Mr. Brown has 90,000).

Michael Howard, a 23-year-old native of Brooklyn, is another volunteer. His shirt is festooned with campaign buttons bearing slogans that range from the tongue-in-cheek ("Yes we cannabis") to the businesslike ("Yes on 19").

Earlier this year, Mr. Howard relocated to Los Angeles to study the finer points of pot growing. He hopes to start his own delivery business one day. "It's like computers," he says. "If you're not on the bandwagon early …"

A gentle, slender young man with dreadlocks, Mr. Howard says his devotion to the issue is personal and political. If the measure passes, "cops can focus on real crimes and stop locking up young kids, especially minorities," he says. Hanging from his neck is a card that allows him to access marijuana for medical purposes - another pioneering initiative passed by California in 1996 and adopted by 14 other states.

Mr. Howard has a stomach ailment that for years left him unable to eat early in the day. Smoking a little pot each morning solves that problem, he says, though he's still adjusting to the California way of doing things. For someone from New York, the sight of people walking out of marijuana clinics with little paper bags of weed is a bit "mind-boggling."

California's pot scene can be heady for outsiders. It's relatively easy for locals to get a prescription for medical marijuana. Sales at storefront dispensaries don't exactly feel clinical. One well-established outlet in Los Angeles has marijuana brownies, cookies and butter on offer, promotes discounts on certain days of the week, and hands out rewards for bringing in new "patient-members."

Earlier this year the city cracked down on hundreds of dispensaries that had flourished in a murky regulatory environment. The Los Angeles experience is cited as a cautionary tale, while proponents say places such as Oakland, near San Francisco, have done a better job of making the rules clear.

Oakland, with its pot-friendly city council, is the epicentre of the movement to legalize marijuana. Richard Lee, a local entrepreneur and activist, has spent more than $1-million of his own money on the campaign. He is the founder of Oaksterdam University, an organization offering classes on topics from advanced pot growing to the history of cannabis.

With just two weeks left until the election, anything could happen. Proposition 19's opponents say they will hold press conferences throughout the state where police officers and prosecutors explain why they think the measure is dangerous. "We're the ones who are going to have to deal with the consequences should this horrible measure pass," says Kim Raney of the California Police Chiefs Association.

Mr. Raney notes that regardless of what happens on Nov. 2, marijuana will remain illegal under federal law. U.S. authorities have taken a hands-off approach to medical marijuana, effectively giving it the green light so long as state laws are being followed.

But the Justice Department said recently it would "vigorously enforce" federal drug laws against the recreational use of marijuana, even if California allows it. How exactly federal authorities would do that is unclear, since the vast majority of marijuana arrests take place at the local level.

Indeed, much about the brave world of legalized marijuana remains in the realm of speculation. Academics foresee a drastic fall in the price of the drug in California, which would deal a blow to criminal cartels. Supporters see the potential for $1.4-billion in new revenue for the state from taxes and fees. Opponents warn that each of the state's hundreds of cities will create different rules surrounding the drug's use.

Hanna Liebman Dershowitz, a petite 41-year old lawyer in Los Angeles who is working on the Yes campaign, is one of those who believe "the sky is not going to fall" if the proposition passes.

A mother of two young children, she is more worried about her kids making responsible choices about eating sugar and driving a car than she is about marijuana. She took her five-year-old to three birthday parties on a recent weekend and at each one she sought out parents to convince.

It's time to discard "a mistaken policy of generations past," she says. "I like to say I'm cautiously pessimistic, but I'm really starting to believe that it could happen."

Follow on Twitter: @jslaternyc

 

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