Legalization in 2016?

Professional reformers, longtime activists, and stakeholders in the marijuana industry attended an invitation-only meeting at the Waterfront Hotel in Oakland January 9 to discuss plans for a marijuana ‘legalization’ initiative to be on the ballot in California in 2016.

The invitations came from the Coalition for Cannabis Policy Reform (CCPR), a group led by Dale Sky Jones that was formed after the defeat of a legalization measure in 2010, and the Drug Policy Alliance, represented by lobbyist Jim Gonzales

The keynote speaker was Bill Zimmerman, a Los Angeles campaign consultant who is widely credited with masterminding the 1996 Proposition 215 campaign, which legalized marijuana for medical use in California.

Zimmerman seemed oblivious to the presence in the crowd of grassroots organizers who considered him and the Drug Policy Alliance usurpers who weakened Prop 215 and provided no help in the fight for implementation.

“I first took marijuana legalization seriously in 1995,” said Zimmerman, reading from a prepared speech, “at a meeting that George Zimmer hosted at Francesca’s Restaurant at the Oakland airport. At the time, I was not a marijuana activist, but I was an experienced ballot initiative campaign manager. So later that year, when the signature drive to qualify Proposition 215 began to collapse, I was asked to take over the campaign.” [Zimmer, who was in the audience, was then CEO of the Men’s Wearhouse. The meeting at Francesca’s was in January, ’96, according to others who were there.]

The Relevant Background

Zimmerman was hired for the campaign-manager job by Ethan Nadelmann, director of an NGO that is now called the Drug Policy Alliance. Nadelmann had the backing of enlightened billionaires —George Soros, Peter Lewis, John Sperling, and Laurence Rockefeller— and could write a check to get California’s medical marijuana initiative on the ballot. Most of the million Nadelmann raised went to the professional signature drive (which paid $1/per). Zimmerman becoming campaign manager was Nadelmann’s price for writing the check.

Note that Zimmerman and Nadelmann had nothing to do with writing California’s medical marijuana initiative, which had been drafted by Dennis Peron, William G. Panzer, Dale Gieringer, and Tod Mikuriya, with input from a broad entourage that had been meeting at the San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club in the summer and fall of 1995. Nadelzimm never would have called for legalizing marijuana to treat any condition for which it provides relief. Fortunately, by the time they took over, it was too late to change the wording.

Gieringer and Panzer were among the Prop 215 proponents listening to Zimmerman’s version of 1996. Others included Mike and Michele Aldrich, Ellen Komp, Rob Raich, Jeff Jones, Marsha Rosenbaum and the aforementioned Zimmer.

“When I took the Prop 215 job,” Zimmerman recounted, “I commissioned a public opinion poll, and I asked the pollsters to add a question that was new to such polling. And the question was, ‘Are you personally acquainted with anyone who has used marijuana for medical purposes?’ I was amazed at the result: 33% of likely voters in 1996 answered yes to that question. That’s when I understood that medical marijuana was a winnable issue. And that it could be used as an opening argument for the eventual legalization of recreational use.”

It was honest of Zimmerman to admit that a third of “the people” knew more about marijuana than he did. And that he —running campaigns in California since the 1970s— didn’t understand the political significance of marijuana. And that he considered “legalization” the ultimate goal of the Prop 215 campaign.

Zimmerman went on: “Working with the Drug Policy Alliance, DPA, we sought two goals; legalizing medical marijuana in the short run, but preparing for a broader effort in the long run. The 215 campaign taught me about the many medical conditions that marijuana could alleviate, the many hundreds of thousands of patients who had been helped, the needless human suffering it could relieve, and when I finally understood all of this, and how important it was, I wanted to do more.”

And funding just happened to be available.

“So three days after the Prop 215 victory, with DPA’s support, we launched medical marijuana initiative campaigns in six other states. And the modern marijuana reform movement was born.”

A Credit Grab

That is a credit grab. “The modern marijuana reform movement was born” —to use Zimmerman’s silly image— in San Francisco in 1990-91, when Dennis Peron launched the Cannabis Buyers Club in response to the AIDS epidemic. The club enabled the Prop 215 campaign in 1995-96. DPA’s post-215 efforts to push weaker initiatives in other states represented the beginning of the cooling off of the super-nova that had exploded in California. It looked like expansion, but…

As Nadelmann funded Zimmerman to promote electoral initiatives in other states, California activists were denied resources needed in the crucial fight for implementation of Prop 215. In vain Dr. Tod Mikuriya asked DPA and the Marijuana Policy Project to underwrite what he called an “audit to promote compliance” on the part of all the agencies that would have to change their policies —Probation, Sheriffs, Police, Child Protective Services, etc. Tod finally undertook the project himself with the help of John Trapp, his assistant in running a very busy medical practice. For several years after 215 passed, Mikuriya was the only doctor in California known to readily approve cannabis in treating any condition for which it provides relief.

John Trapp wrote about the audit plan for O’Shaughnessy’s (Spring 2008). Tod rightly expected resistance to implementing Prop 215 from law enforcement, the medical establishment (especially addiction specialists), and inert government bureaucrats. With every passing year I realize how politically astute his audit scheme was. The idea was to have a young lawyer and/or an intern pressing all the relevant government agencies to rewrite their protocols in accordance with the new law, and using the media to publicize acts of noncompliance. The audit would have kept the drug warriors on the defensive.

Momentum is crucial in politics, and we, the people, had it when Prop 215 passed in November, 1996. The vote had been a huge rebuke to law enforcement —56 to 44 YES! —over the opposition of every sheriff, police chief and DA in the state (except Terence Hallinan of San Francisco). But CaliforniaAttorney General Dan Lungren immediately announced a “narrow interpretation” that encouraged cops to keep arresting and DAs to keep prosecuting people for cultivation, etc. Dennis Peron’s club was closed down (as “a nuisance” on seedy Market Street) and Tod Mikuriya prosecuted by the AG’s office. Law enforcement and government bureaucrats regrouped and pursued plans for a rollback, jurisdiction by jurisdiction. To this day they have blocked the full implementation of Prop 215.

DPA did not entirely pull the rug out from under California after the Prop 215 victory. In response to a threat by the Clinton Administration to revoke the licenses of doctors who approved marijuana use by patients, DPA filed suit to block any such action. Although the government’s threat had been made against Dr. Mikuriya, specifically, by Clinton’s Four-Star Drug Czar Barry McCaffrey, the DPA strategists did not include Tod among the many co-plaintiffs in their lawsuit.

The Conant v. McCaffrey suit was crucial to our movement’s advance. (When your mission is to end the war on drugs, you can’t help but do right 90 percent of the time.) But excluding Mikuriya as a co-plaintiff was “pot baiting” (his term) on the part of DPA. Perhaps if Tod had been a co-plaintiff in Conant v. McCaffrey, the state attorney general might not have prosecuted him.

But back to Bill Zimmerman in 2015: “Our success has now altered the playing field. “Now the looming possibility of full legalization has attracted many people to our movement. They are welcomed, even though they may not share our original public interest commitment…

“As you know, political campaigns target persuadable voters. And generally ignore those already committed to voting for or against. Our situation is no different. Speaking in very rough terms, polling indicates that about one third of likely voters strongly favor legalization. One third strongly oppose. And about one third tilt in our favor, but only halfheartedly. Our audience is that last third, not the third that already supports us…

Unity Good, Factions Bad

Zimmerman read on: “CCPR asked me to speak today about how we can win this ballot initiative fight. Instead, I want to talk briefly about how we can lose it. I see three ways to do that: First, we can demand too much. Second, we can divide into opposing factions. Third we draw a heavily funded opposition.

“The first way we can lose in 2016 is to go too far, to demand too much in the text of our initiative. Remember who we are speaking to, that last third of the voters, who are unhappy about marijuana, but reluctantly willing to legalize it… Our beliefs about what is right have to be put aside in the interest of what is possible.

“The second way we can lose is to divide our effort and break up into two or more factions.”

You may have noticed: it’s always the dominant faction that calls for unity and denounces factions.

Zimmerman: “Our differences must be governed [sic] by what is best for California, and must be determined by scientific data, not our own unsupported wishes and hopes.”

By “scientific data,” he means feedback from a pollster whose questions can be framed to provide answers that DPA wants. Counterpunch has published an analysis of such a poll. See how easy it is to give the client the answer s/he wants by wording the questions appropriately.


Zimmerman warned that “new players with their own money” might back initiatives, resulting in more than one making the ballot. This would be “disastrous,” he claimed.

“Our opponents would jump at the chance to advertise our disagreements, and argue that we are so confused as to how to structure legalization, that we are unable to even agree among ourselves about how this dangerous move should be managed. That argument would be devastating to the voters that we need to target.”

Reform honchos always emphasize the importance of a unified message. This may be because they’re control freaks, personally, and/or because they don’t want to split the campaign funds with other reform honchos. In reality, two initiatives would give voters perspective. For example, an initiative legalizing marijuana for adults 18 and over would make another one legalizing the herb for adults 21 and over appear more “centrist.”

Zimmerman also expressed fear about getting outspent, although he didn’t explain how an initiative could be crafted to minimize that possibility. He said: “Statewide TV advertisement has often defeated popular ballot initiatives in California. I can tell you that from first-hand experience, having managed a single-payer healthcare initiative in 1974 that started with 70% support and got 27% on Election Day because of opposition advertising by health insurance companies.

“I have personally managed 17 drug reform ballot initiatives in ten states, losing only four. None of the thirteen victories had opposition TV advertising. All of the four defeats did.”

He only wins when he can outspend the opposition.

“The most damaging argument will come if we end up with more than one legalization initiative,” Zimmerman repeated. “That argument will go something like, ‘We support marijuana legalization just as much as many Californians do, but protecting kids and maintaining public safety is so complicated and difficult that even the legalization activists can’t agree on how to do it.’ There’s no effective response to that strategy if there are multiple initiatives on the ballot…

“If any of these very effective arguments are made by opponents on a multimillion dollar advertising campaign, my guess is that we will have to spend as much as four times as much as they do to neutralize them. Dramatic lies sit in one’s memory far longer than any hopeful truths.”

A great point to make to prospective donors —but it makes no sense when you think about it, Why should our truth costs four times more to get across than their lie?

Only DPA Can Save Us

Zimmerman: “While each of us should pursue what he or she thinks best, and do so vigorously, we will all have to compromise. Politics is in the end, the art of the possible. And to determine what is possible, we need to rely on scientific public opinion data.”

Which my company can provide. (Note the repeat of “scientific.”)

“In the next few months, we have to unify around a single initiative, and prepare to wage a unified campaign on its behalf. While many organizations represented in this room and elsewhere will contribute to that effort, only the Drug Policy Alliance is capable of leading it. The time has come to put aside past differences, and recognize this essential fact.

“The DPA has a large and centrally located operation in California. They are the only organization that has handled successful ballot initiatives here. They come with the experience and the financial resources that give us all the best chance we have. The logic is simple: to win, we have to unite. To unite, we need strong and capable leadership. Nobody has it to the extent the DPA does. The conclusion therefore is inescapable. I hope all of you, after pushing as hard as possible for everything you believe in, in the end will join with me in a unified and goal driven organization campaign managed by our friends in the Drug Policy Alliance. That is simply the best, and very likely the only way to succeed. Thank you.”

Audience Response

First up to the question mike was Ellen Komp, who worked hard on the Prop 215 campaign in ‘95-’96, and is now deputy director of California NORML. “I’d like to ask DPA to join the coalition, CCPR, which we’ve all been working so hard for,” she began.

“And second, because your organization, Americans for Medical Rights brought about the six-plant limit in the other states you ran the initiatives in… Can you think of a way that we can protect the cottage industry in California? How are we going to legalize it in a way that isn’t warehouse weed that costs $200,000 for a license like other states are doing?” (A reference to New York state.)

“Good question,” said Zimmerman, who had no answer and went on to blither irrelevantly, “What I said in my remarks about being goal driven I think is the way to answer the question… When we got that 33% ‘Yes’ response to the question ‘Do you know someone who has used marijuana medically?’ if you asked about legalization at that time, you would have gotten a very low number of people in favor of recreational distribution.”

Doesn’t this veteran campaign professional know that 33% of Californians voted for full legalization of marijuana in 1971? His surprise that one in three Californians knew a medical user in 1996 was equally revealing, given that AIDS patients were using en masse and that Dr. Mikuriya, Dennis Peron, Valerie Corral, and hundreds of grassroots activists had been carrying the message for many years. Bill Zimmerman was the beneficiary of a social movement and mass action (on the part of AIDS patients). An electoral campaign is only the tip of an iceberg. The public education campaign that precedes it is crucial to success.

The usually mild-mannered Dale Gieringer, a co-author of Prop 215, was next up to the mike. “You were wrong about the DPA having led every successful marijuana initiative,” he said. “May I remind you about Prop 215, organized by a grassroots group here in California with a lot less talent and a lot less experience than we have now. So I cordially suggest that the entire community of California be involved in the writing and the devising of this initiative. We can collaborate and work together on the polling and the writing, and everything else, but to say at this time that there’s one particular organization with an unblemished record in this is inaccurate.”

Zimmerman (gentlemanly): “No question, you’re right about how Prop 215 got off the ground. It was definitely a grassroots effort, it was written by grassroots people here in the Bay Area, and the first campaigning done on its behalf was certainly conducted by what can be described as a grassroots coalition. However, that coalition was unable to qualify the initiative for the ballot… We had to hire professional signature gatherers to qualify. That took money that the grassroots didn’t have. We then had to defend Prop 215 with advertising in order to build an electoral victory, and we did that with money that DPA organized.”

Ellen Komp put in, “But if you had just given that money to the grassroots, we could have done it!” Zimmerman cut off our Pasionaria with a brazen assertion: “I don’t think there are more than two people in the room that believe that. But to finish what I was saying…”

It was smart of Zimmerman not to ask for a show of hands or deal with Komp’s point —which is a relevant point, when it comes to evaluating DPA’s usefulness. How valid is their claim to credit for the victory of Prop 215?

As some in the room knew, support for medical marijuana was 60-40 in a poll taken by the reputable David Binder before Zimmerman became campaign manager. The lead went down after he took over, and was going down until the bust of the San Francisco Buyers’ Club in August attracted the attention of Gary Trudeau, who devoted a week of Doonesbury strips to the club’s martyrdom. Attorney General Lungren went apeshit and called a press conference to denounce Doonesbury! Every political cartoonist in the state aimed one at Lungren. Trudeau did another week’s worth of ‘toons in October.

“But to finish what I was saying,” Zimmerman huffed, “the recommendation that I made, that DPA lead the campaign, was not a recommendation that DPA is the only organization that play a role in that campaign…. I’m only arguing that DPA is the most qualified manager.”

Panzer: we can find other friends

Attorney Bill Panzer, who also helped draft Prop 215, told Zimmerman: “Back in 1996, we didn’t have the money. George Soros had the money… This time, there’s going to be other people with money. And you should talk to Ethan [Nadelmann] and let him know that what’s going to happen this time, if you guys don’t work with us: there’s going to be an initiative on the ballot that DPA has nothing to do with.”

Zimmerman smoothly shifted gears: “First of all, it’s not ‘you guys.” I’m not DPA, I’m not part of DPA, I have been a consultant to DPA over the years and at present I have no role in the upcoming campaign, and no role in the Drug Policy Alliance.”

Goldsberry: Who is to benefit?

Debby Goldsberry, a widely respected veteran activist, challenged Zimmerman’s contention that the initiative should be written with the undecided third of voters in mind. “To us,” she said, confident that she was speaking for many in the room, “the most important third is our third, because you are talking about my ability to feed my family, and that is the most important thing to me. I need a job and I need to feed my family. I’m not sure that DPA is going to create something that’s going to support me and my needs and we’re talking about a third of your voters. Now you’re asking if you can lead us, and you think you’re the best. I’m not convinced, and that’s why you need to join with CCPR. Because I really feel like they care about the third of the people that’s us.”

At last someone had gotten real. The wording of the winning initiative will determine the fate of thousands of mom-and-pop growers and chocolatiers and the dispensaries that distribute their wares.

Medical marijuana and “legalization”

Dale Gieringer considered the October 9 conference “an overall success.” He welcomed the presence of Bill Quirk the new chair of the State Assembly’s public safety committee, who supports the idea of legalization. Gieringer says of Quirk, a Democrat who represents Hayward. “He’s Ammiano’s hand-picked successor. And he really respected what Ammiano was doing as public safety chair. He’s viewed in the legislature as more of a moderate which makes him a likelier sponsor than Ammiano, who carried a lot of baggage about certain things.”

In focusing on adult-use legislation, DPA leaders in California seem willing to leave medical marijuana to the legislature (as happened in Washington state with disastrous consequences).

“Medical marijuana is the original industry,” says Gieringer. “We’ve got to get the transition from the current unregulated medical marijuana industry to a state-regulated medical marijuana industry accomplished in a fashion that is most compatible with the existing industry, giving everybody an even playing field and fair chances to succeed.

“As of now, the entire processing industry is uncovered by state law. Almost all the growers are operating in semi-illegal gray ares. And the federal government is breathing down our necks, calling for strict state regulations of medical marijuana.”

“The legislature is going to have some bills this year dealing with medical marijuana regulation. Rob Bonta (D-Alameda) has introduced a placeholder bill. Reggie Jones-Sawyer, an assemblyman from Southern California, has a proposal. CCPR has developed some draft medical marijuana regulation legislation of our own, based on Ammiano’s bill from last year, which we supported, but which didn’t get out of the Assembly. We’ve improved on the Ammiano bill, and we’re really trying to hone in on the issue of making a transition between the current market and the regulated market work okay.

New Group in Town

The day before the CPCR-DPA event in Oakland, at the Rex Hotel in San Francisco, there had been a smaller meeting organized by Steve Fox, a longtime Marijuana Policy Project leader who is now heading the Denver-based “Council on Responsible Cannabis Regulations.” DPA honchos were not invited. The Coloradans said their purpose was to remind the California legalizers that “the minutae of the initiative concerning water use, edibles, packaging and so forth” would determine whose interests would be advanced, and how successfully, in the prospective “six-to-eight billion dollar industry.”

Fred Gardner is the managing editor of O’Shaughnessy’s. He can be reached at



Fred Gardner is the managing editor of O’Shaughnessy’s. He can be reached at