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Businessman pushes legalizing marijuana; pastor leads opposition

11:25 AM, Mar 29, 2010   |    comments
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By Dan Harris, Joel Siegel and Kathleen Hendry
ABC News

Richard Lee is a well-known businessman in Oakland. His business is marijuana -- and it is booming.

From his coffee house selling medical marijuana, to his trade school for marijuana growers, Oaksterdam University, Lee employs 58 people and pays hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in taxes.

But last week, Lee achieved what is arguably his biggest success yet, after California's secretary of state ruled that his campaign to make marijuana legal had gathered enough signatures to place the issue before voters this November.

"I've always thought since I grew up in the '70s that cannabis prohibition is unjust and hypocritical," Lee said.

The initiative would allow adults 21 or older to possess up to an ounce of marijuana for personal use. It also would allow the growing of up to 25 square feet of marijuana per residence.

If the ballot measure is approved, California would become the first state to allow the recreational use of pot. It is likely to be a fierce campaign.

Lee, a 47-year-old taciturn transplant from Texas, spent $1 million from his marijuana businesses -- all of them legal -- on the petition drive that got the referendum on the ballot.

And now he hopes to raise $20 million for the fall campaign. He's being advised by some well-known political strategists, most notably Chris Lehane, who worked in the White House under President Bill Clinton and was a top operative in Al Gore's 2000 presidential race.

Lehane also heads Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson's task force on a new entertainment and sports complex for the city. 

"We're starting radio commercials Monday in Los Angeles and the Bay Area and we have over 100,000 friends of Facebook,"  Lee said. "We're raising money from all over the United States on the Internet because people know this is a national issue and it starts in California."

But opponents are mobilizing, too.

Pastor Ron Allen of Sacramento is one of the leaders of a coalition of cops and clergy who say legalizing marijuana will lead to the use of harder drugs and only cause more problems for society.

For Allen, this is also a personal crusade. He was a crack cocaine addict for seven years, and he says it all started with marijuana.

Passage "would devastate California to the fullest extent. ... This is the worst thing that California could ever try to do," Allen said.

To legalize marijuana with our kids, we are going to see more dropouts, we are going to see more crime, we are going to see more thefts, and we are going to see our kids just hanging out on the corner," he said.

Still, opposition to legalization is easing, both in California and nationally.

Indeed, in some ways, Lee is a living symbol of how marijuana is becoming mainstream.

His Oaksterdam University -- the name is a marriage of Oakland and drug-tolerant Amsterdam -- has grown to three campuses in California and one in Michigan. More than 4,000 people are expected to take classes this year.

The school, which boasts that it provides "quality training for the cannabis industry," and Lee's other businesses have helped to revitalize part of downtown Oakland and turn the city into something of an unofficial capital of the legalization movement.

Oakland already has passed its own version of the statewide ballot question. Its referendum directed the Oakland police to make enforcement of marijuana laws their lowest priority. Lee was a prime mover behind that ballot question, too.

An ABC News/Washington Post poll in January found that 46 percent of Americans support legalizing small amounts of marijuana for personal use, up from 39 percent in 2002 and 22 percent in 1997. A Field Poll last year found that 56 percent of Californians support the idea.

In 1996, California became the first state to make medical marijuana legal. Thirteen states have followed suit, and more are considering it. Making recreational use legal is the next logical step, Lee said.

And in these tough times, he and other advocates say they have a powerful new argument: Governments need the cash that taxing marijuana could generate.

"The bad economy has definitely helped us out a lot as far as opening up a lot of people's minds to seeing that this is a waste of money and that we need to use our public funds better and tax these people," Lee said.

Advocates say taxing marijuana could generate $1.4 billion in revenue for California every year, and save the state tens if not hundreds of millions dollars more in enforcement costs.

But any tax revenue derived from legalizing marijuana would be "blood money," Allen said.

"They would have to have new smokers and new smokers would be our youth and our next generation," Allen said.

"And the money that they are talking about gaining on taxes, they are not telling us on how much more the parents will spend on funerals, on how much more the kids are going to spend in the emergency room," he said. "It will exceed those taxes."

The referendum's passage would set up a clash with federal law, which still considers marijuana a dangerous drug. But Lee and other advocates said they doubt the federal government would ever come after individuals for smoking pot.

ABC News

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