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Richard Lee Goes Worldwide

By James Lang

California has long flirted with cannabis legalization, but always has failed to bring home the girl.
Of the various efforts to end prohibition in t

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By James Lang

California has long flirted with cannabis legalization, but always has failed to bring home the girl.

Of the various efforts to end prohibition in the Golden State, perhaps the most heartbreaking was 1972’s Proposition 19, which was launched with great hope and fanfare, but was ultimately rejected by 66 percent of the voters. Even California’s groundbreaking efforts at allowing cannabis for medicinal use have proved frustrating—more than 200 cities and counties have passed bans on cannabis clubs in the 14 years that Proposition 215 has been the law of the land.

It’s perhaps with this spotty record in mind that Oaksterdam University founder Richard Lee has taken a decidedly different approach to his own big push for cannabis legalization—the Regulate, Control & Tax Cannabis Act of 2010, a statewide initiative that recently qualified for the November ballot. If passed, the initiative would allow Californians over 21 to grow cannabis on their own property and possess up to an ounce of dried cannabis, and allow local governments to tax and regulate the selling of cannabis. Having bankrolled the signature-gathering phase of the campaign, Lee has gone high-tech as the campaign moves into the next and most important stage of the game—convincing a majority of California voters to vote yes on the measure.

Historically, it’s in this final stretch that efforts to reform marijuana laws go off the rails. It’s one thing to convince voters outside a supermarket to sign a marijuana-legalization petition—quite another to get them to the ballot box on Election Day. Even if they do turn out, there’s no guarantee they’ll vote in favor of the initiative following this summer’s anticipated barrage of anti-marijuana propaganda from law enforcement groups like the California Narcotics Officers Association, church outfits and conservative politicians. To help keep momentum on his side, Lee has reached big-time for a powerful tool: the Internet.

“We have over 75,000 friends on Facebook now, and about 50,000 have signed up on our website,” Lee says in a phone interview. “Those people are getting regular updates about the initiative, and we can use those lists for fundraising.”

The importance of that latter part—fundraising—can’t be overstated. Lee may have earmarked $2 million of his own cash to help finance the drive, but that’s a mere fraction of what it’ll take just to make it to November. By comparison, supporters of the anti-gay marriage initiative Proposition 8 spent $35.8 million on the effort, while opponents shelled out $37.6 million, according to campaign finance records. To keep the money tap flowing, Lee turned to a company with a record of fundraising success that speaks for itself—Blue State Digital, otherwise known as the same outfit that in 2008 raised Internet donations for then-presidential candidate Barack Obama.

“It’s going well,” Lee says. “We raised $42,000 the week of 4/20 alone, and hope to keep on going.”

Lee and his troops—including six paid campaign staffers and hundreds of volunteers—have also deployed an Information Age weapon aimed at keeping the pro-legalization masses engaged: online video conferencing. In May, he held the first of a planned series of “Skype Conferences”—this one with more than 100 activists gathered at the THCF Medical Clinic in Riverside. Using Skype communication software, Lee and an associate were able to broadcast live from Oaksterdam’s Oakland headquarters to the Riverside gathering to make their pitch and directly answer questions. Other conferences soon followed, including Q&As with Internet users from all over the world.

Lee’s efforts, both on- and offline, have already begun to pay off big dividends, including recent endorsements by the United Food and Commercial Workers Local No. 5 and—a first for a pro-marijuana legalization ballot initiative—the California chapter of the NAACP. The endorsements mean the legalization push will receive material support from thousands of union and NAACP volunteers.

“Historically, the NAACP has been opposed to any initiative that’s drug-related,” Lee says. “But when the president of the California chapter, Alice Huffman, visited our campaign headquarters, it was the opposite of us pushing for an endorsement—she came and we couldn’t shut her up. She said she had an epiphany that thousands of African-American men were being incarcerated for marijuana use in wildly disproportionate numbers compared to non-African Americans, and that she told her organization, ‘You’re not going to like this, but I’m for legalization.’ This is potentially really big for us.”

To find out more about the Regulate, Tax and Control Act of 2010 or to sign up for the campaign newsletter, visit www.taxcannabis.org.