"The 215 campaign was being run by local activists," Nadelmann says. "I got involved, put together major funders and campaign managers, and turned it into a professional campaign and won that thing." During a recent stretch, Nadelmann was flying from Santa Barbara to Houston, then to San Diego, then back to New York, then returning to Los Angeles—all to preach pot, all in a span of a few weeks.

As advocates step up the pressure, public opinions are shifting. The Gallup Poll showed 23 percent support for legalization in 1983. This year, the finding was 44 percent, with more than half of the voters in California in favor.

The number of highly placed government officials and jurists who have joined the public call for marijuana reform would have been hard to imagine even a decade ago. One example is retired Orange County, California, Superior Court Judge James P. Gray, author of the 2001 book Why Our Drug Laws Have Failed and What We Can Do About It.

Cannabis plants grown by students at Oaksterdam University, a trade school for the cannabis industry, are shown at the school in Oakland,  California, July 23, 2009. Students are educated on marijuana law and  cultivation techniques and are on the forefront of a new industry as  cities like Oakland look to tax medical marijuana dispensaries.
REUTERS/Robert Galbraith
Cannabis plants grown by students at Oaksterdam University, a trade school for the cannabis industry, are shown at the school in Oakland, California, July 23, 2009. Students are educated on marijuana law and cultivation techniques and are on the forefront of a new industry as cities like Oakland look to tax medical marijuana dispensaries.
Medical marijuana supporter Bruce Mirken stands handcuffed to the fence at the White House in 2002.
rlw/Roger L. Wollenberg UPI
Medical marijuana supporter Bruce Mirken stands handcuffed to the fence at the White House in 2002.

Gray argues that drug prohibitions are a "golden goose" for terrorist organizations, a view that has gained traction with the public.

"We truly are seeing the most rapid gains in public support for making marijuana legal that I've ever seen," Nadelmann says. "It really feels like a new age."

In Nadelmann's view, the changing attitudes largely stem from the efforts of the Drug Policy Alliance—formed by a merger of two smaller groups in 2000—and similar organizations, such as NORML and the Marijuana Policy Project.

While activists know there may be a limited time to seize the chance offered by today's market conditions and Obama's laissez-faire policies, they are also buoyed by fundamental changes going on in America. The biggest of these is irreversible—the supplanting of hard-line ideologues with baby boomers who came of age in the time of Woodstock and flower power.

"A whole generation didn't know the difference between heroin and marijuana," Nadelmann says. "That generation is mostly dying off. [In its place] are tens of millions of parents and middle-aged people who smoked marijuana and didn't become drug addicts."

On the contrary, they now fill elected seats and boardrooms. Is it any wonder the tide seems unstoppable?

"We're looking at a perfect storm here," says California Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, who emblemizes that new type of leader. A former standup comic, Ammiano spent part of the 1960s among the hippies of Haight Ashbury, grooving to The Grateful Dead. Now 68, the San Francisco Democrat is one of the most watched figures in the national marijuana struggle for one compelling reason: Assembly Bill 390, legislation he introduced in early 2009 that would make California the first state in the nation to legalize and tax recreational pot.

Considered bold even among marijuana activists, Ammiano's measure would remove cannabis from the state's banned-substances list, allow private cultivation, levy fees and sales taxes, and prohibit sales to minors and driving under the influence. A state analysis projects annual revenue of $1.4 billion, a number that critics claim is inflated. That figure does not include the enormous amount of state and federal income and business taxes that would be paid by growers, retailers and their employees as part of a fully realized economic model.

According to the same state budget analysis, the value of today's annual marijuana harvest in California is $13.8 billion, making weed one of the state's biggest export crops. The value of the nation's entire pot harvest is $35.8 billion, according to the analysis. Since legalized medical cannabis is only a tiny fraction of the market, and the dispensaries typically operate as nonprofits, virtually no income tax is collected. Indeed, income-tax projections have rarely played a role in the debate over legalization, although that, too, appears to be changing, especially in cash-strapped California.

"Our economic situation is egregious," says Ammiano, who plans to begin conducting hearings this month. "I think people have begun to take it seriously."

If Ammiano's bill fails—and many think it's too much, too soon—pot advocates have a Plan B, a narrower statewide initiative expected to reach the ballot next November. That measure would rewrite the criminal drug laws to make an exception for small amounts of marijuana. Its mastermind and chief bankroller is Richard Lee, the 47-year-old founder of Oaksterdam.

Lee, who opened his first campus in Oakland two years ago, says 6,000 people have taken his courses, which are organized into $250 weekend seminars and $650 one-semester courses. At any given time, he says, 500 students are enrolled in classes at the three campuses: Los Angeles, Sebastopol (an hour north of San Francisco) and Oakland, where Lee just unveiled a three-story teaching facility.

The formidable flow of revenue helps Lee to finance further marijuana reform. So far, he says, he has invested $1 million of his own money in the initiative. Faced with a February deadline for submitting 433,000 signatures, he claims he has already gathered well more than 600,000 and is still collecting more, just to be certain that enough are valid.

"The response has been overwhelming," Lee says.

If Californians light up, the beacon will be visible from sea to shining sea. Nadelmann says he consulted with both Ammiano and Lee on the language of their proposals and points out that California has always been a bellwether of cultural change, especially when it comes to pot.

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