Vote Over California Marijuana Goes Down to the Wire

Jesse McKinley|The New York Times

It is the home stretch in the battle over Proposition 19, the ballot initiative that would legalize and regulate marijuana in California, and at “Yes” headquarters in downtown Oakland last week, young volunteers were hustling for votes.

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But while the setting was laid back — what with the couches, the Frisbees on the walls and the ample snacks — the mood was anything but, as a computerized system dialing potential voters kept phones ringing constantly.

“This is one of our generation’s most important issues,” said Evan Nison, a junior from Ithaca College in New York who has spent the last five months helping to coordinate the campaign on 40 campuses statewide. “Students are going to be the deciding factor, and I’m in charge of colleges. Talk about stress.”

On the “No” side, opponents are at a financial disadvantage but have been using deep political muscle to spread their message, including Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, and Senator Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat who joined a statewide tour in Los Angeles on Friday. They have also been hammering the proposition on the radio, saying it will endanger children and short-circuit federal school financing and painting its backers as under the influence.

“Wow,” a new advertisement concludes. “Maybe the proponents should have waited to celebrate until after they’d written the legal language.”

Still, with a growing number of Americans favoring legalization — a Gallup poll released last week found a record high 46 percent approving of legalizing marijuana — perhaps no ballot measure in the country will be more closely watched on Tuesday.

And while some polls here show the “yes” side on Proposition 19 trailing, even a close loss could have national impact, as groups seeking to change drug laws watch the results and consider backing legalization measures in other states.

“Win or lose, this thing has moved the ball much further down the field than anyone could have imagined,” said Ethan Nadelmann, the executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, which supports Proposition 19. “It’s transformed the debate not only in California, but nationally and internationally.”

Even opponents concede that their efforts to stop the measure do not necessarily mean that legalization is deeply unpopular, just that it is a bad idea to pass Proposition 19, which would allow anyone over 21 to possess and cultivate small amounts of marijuana but would leave many of the details concerning the sale, production and taxation to local governments.

“We have members of the coalition who are opposed to legalization of any kind, and we have members who say, ‘We could see it,’ ” said Roger Salazar, a spokesman and strategist for the opponents. “But the hodge-podge of ‘let’s legalize use throughout the state, and then figure out if we want to legalize its sale, or tax it’ — it doesn’t seem to work for a lot of folks.”

Backers of the measure have spent more than $2 million getting it on the ballot and campaigning for its passage, an effort that has been assisted in recent weeks by several large donations, including $1 million from the billionaire George Soros. That late influx of cash has helped pay for a spate of advertisements.

The opposition campaign — run by a pair of experienced political consulting firms based in Sacramento — says it has raised only about $350,000 in donations. But they have found substantial support from well-connected, well-organized groups like the California Police Chiefs Association and the California Chamber of Commerce.

Not that many donors on both sides were initially interested in giving money to an initiative that was seen as a long shot.

“It wasn’t even on their radar screen,” said Tim Rosales, the “No on 19” campaign manager.

Mr. Nadelmann concurred, saying many big pro-legalization donors, like Mr. Soros, did not start to consider giving money until it became apparent that the measure had a fighting chance.

“They didn’t quite believe that the polling would hold up as well it did,” Mr. Nadelmann said.

While the “No” campaign has been bare-bones — no phone banks, no direct mail — it has used big names and some shocking images to get attention. The Web site for “No on 19,” for example, depicts a crumpled car and an overturned school bus and warns that “recreational marijuana use in fatal crashes will increase if Proposition 19 passes.”

“It will be legal for a driver to get high right before taking the wheel,” it says.

Mrs. Feinstein echoed those themes in her appearance in Los Angeles on Friday, saying Proposition 19 would not increase tax revenue for the state and would not curb violence of drug cartels, both arguments that proponents have made in its favor.

“These, I believe, are false promises,” she said.

California was the first state to legalize medical marijuana in 1996 and would be the first state to legalize recreational use. But this month, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said the federal government would vigorously pursue criminal prosecutions of those who possess, manufacture or distribute the drug, regardless of Proposition 19’s outcome.

Despite uncertainty, strategists for Proposition 19 say they have a number of factors in their favor, including the enthusiasm from young voters, a large get-out-the-vote effort and what they call a “great silent majority” who approve of legalization.

“Voters have increasingly become angrier and angrier at the establishment,” said Chris Lehane, a longtime Democratic strategist who is working for Proposition 19. “And this is the most anti-establishment initiative in the land this cycle.”

Much of the ground game for Proposition 19 is centered in Oakland, where the measure’s co-sponsor, Richard Lee, has built his marijuana trade school — Oaksterdam — into a small empire, with a three-story headquarters in the downtown core. Mr. Lee, a former roadie who founded Oaksterdam in 2007, says he expects the vote to be close, and influential.

“I think we’ve made the issue a lot more legitimate,” he said, adding that he suspected several others states would consider votes on legalization in 2012, including Michigan, where Oaksterdam has a satellite campus.

And while Mr. Lee’s investment has been serious — about $1.4 million — the tone of the campaign has sometimes been looser.

At campaign headquarters in Oakland last week, volunteers worked the phones and their laptops, some dressed in sweat pants and others wearing flip-flops. “Yes on 19” pickets lay about, and a collection of “Yes on 19” Frisbees hung on the wall. In the back, a “war room” had been set up, with a white board counting down the days to Nov. 2.

One volunteer, Doug Greene, said he had flown to California from Long Island because he “wanted to be part of history.”

“If it passes here, the whole map is changed,” said Mr. Greene, a legalization advocate. “And even if we don’t win, we’ve had a discussion that most didn’t think possible.”

Ian Lovett contributed reporting from Los Angeles, and Malia Wollan from Sacramento.