Can Activist-Led Marijuana Legalization Survive in California?


Tom Angell, writing at, broke the news yesterday of Richard Lee’s endorsement of the Sean Parker-led initiative to legalize marijuana in California for the 2016 ballot. It’s a seismic shift in California marijuana reform politics.

For me, it’s like watching a telenovela¡La Gravedad Del Dinero!

Money is the key to winning elections. We can – and should – lament that reality, but we must accept that for the next election cycle, at least, it is reality.

Election Day 2010 for Prop 19
Tom Angell, at left, marching for California’s Prop 19 on Election Day 2010.

Money is even more key to winning an election in California, especially this particular election. Legalization of marijuana in California hastens legalization everywhere, inside and outside the United States. A loss keeps prohibition on life support and maybe gives it a chance to recover. We will see a greater ad war from the enemies of legalization on California airwaves than ever seen; see Florida’s fight for medical marijuana in 2014 for just a taste of what’s about to unfold. Our side will need a lot of money to fight back.

With the greatest battle in legalization about to unfold, I’ve had the honor of getting to know many of the people fighting against the War on Drugs. Now, big money has stepped in and dramatically altered the relationships and strategies of reform advocates, some of whom have put more than four decades into this battle.

I first met Tom Angell through his work with LEAP, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. He’s since taken his considerable public relations skills and advocacy work in an independent direction by founding Marijuana Majority. Tom’s special mutant ability is getting a quote in for almost every major marijuana story in the mainstream media.

Richard Lee at the 2009 NORML Conference (I'm up on the podium)
Richard Lee at the 2009 NORML Conference (I’m up on the podium)

I met Richard Lee back in late 2009. After an accident in Texas left him paralyzed, he came to the Bay Area and founded a successful coffee shop, then the first training institute for marijuana, Oaksterdam University. I met him as he was funding and leading the Prop 19 campaign in 2010, sinking $1.5 million of his own money into it, against all conventional wisdom. Only late into the campaign as it was topping 55 percent in the pools did any other funders or organizations get involved, too little, too late, and it lost. But it began the national dialogue on marijuana legalization; I believe Colorado and Washington don’t succeed without it.

Sean Parker, I do not know. I understand he co-founded Napster, invested in Facebook, and has something like a $3.2 billion net worth. I know that he has proposed the Adult Use of Marijuana Act (AUMA, or as I say it on the radio, “ow, ma!”)

So we have the young billionaire getting a political endorsement from respected activist. But it gets more telenovela. See, Richard Lee is on the board of the Coalition for Cannabis Policy Reform (CCPR), which arose from the ashes of the failed Prop 19 campaign in 2010. The spokeswoman for that Prop 19 campaign was Dale Sky Jones, who is also the chancellor of Oaksterdam University that Lee founded.

Me and Dale Sky Jones at the 2010 THC Exposé
Dale Sky Jones and me at the 2010 THC Exposé

Oh, and Jones is the chair of CCPR, who has been fundraising for the CCPR legalization initiative under the ReformCA campaign. Awkward. And it gets more awkward.

According to Angell’s interview, Lee said, “I believe a majority of the [CCPR] board is ready to endorse the Parker initiative at the next board meeting.” So now Lee is undermining Jones in public prior to the next ReformCA board meeting. ¡Ay, caramba!

ReformCA was supposed to be the consensus-building group that would come forward with a sensible marijuana legalization plan that could get majority support and attract the funders necessary for signature gathering and advertising. Since the fall of Prop 19, Jones has worked diligently to build strategic political alliances from outside marijuana reform, such as bringing in the California NAACP‘s Ms. Alice Huffman as Vice Chair and Antonio Gonzales from the William C. Velasquez Institute, a prominent Latino public policy org.

Most of all, ReformCA would unite the marijuana legalization activists who’ve put so many years into California reform. Their board reflects that promise, with membership including California NORML‘s Dale Gieringer, Students for Sensible Drug Policy‘s Stacia Cosner, LEAP‘s Neill Franklin, and Americans for Safe Access‘ Don Duncan. Add Lee, Jones, Huffman, and Gonzalez to this group I’d call the “activist bloc” – eight votes.

The board also includes industry leaders like Hezekiah Allen of the Emerald Growers Alliance, Yami Bolanos of the Greater Los Angeles Collective Alliance, Nate Bradley of the California Cannabis Industry Association, Debby Goldsberry of the United Food & Commercial Workers Union, and David Bronner of Dr Bronner’s Magic Soap. Jones’ husband, Jeff Jones, is also on the board, representing the Patient ID Center, as is industry attorney Joe Rogaway. Call them the “industry bloc” – seven votes.

So now my telenovela has me in the classic cliff-hanger mode: who are the ReformCA board members who’d be this “majority” Lee says will endorse the Parker marijuana legalization initiative? It’s safe to say the two Jones votes are likely “no”, unless that marriage is incredibly strong. Lee is clearly “yes”, and Nate Bradley told Tom Angell he’s “very excited” about Lee’s endorsement and that “It’s important for CCPR to join the coalition, so we can all stand in support as one unified voice.” Looks like a 2-2 wash so far.

How will the activist bloc of ReformCA react? The Parker initiative may be a bit more restrictive than some reformers like, but enough to try to compete with a separate initiative in a difficult fundraising atmosphere? Will the industry bloc find the Parker initiative to be a worse option than the status quo and find the funds necessary to compete?

Tune in next week for another exciting episode of ¡La Gravedad Del Dinero!

Russ Belville

"Radical" Russ Belville is a blogger, podcaster, and host of The Russ Belville Show, a daily two-hour talk radio show focused on the evolution of the legal marijuana industry in the United States. The program is airing live at 3pm Pacific Time from Portland, Oregon, on, with podcast available on iTunes and Stitcher Radio. Russ began his marijuana activism in 2005 with Oregon NORML, then in 2009 went on to work for National NORML, and found and direct Portland 2015.