Yes on Weed, No on 19

Legalization was shot down, but the marijuana industry -- and government dependence on it -- continues to grow



"Don't stop believin'" was the message from Prop. 19 creator Richard Lee of Oakland after the initiative to tax and regulate pot lost by around 540,000 votes -- 46 percent to 53 percent -- last Tuesday night. About 3.3 million Californians voted for the measure, and 3.9 million didn't. But Prop. 19 is widely considered to have elevated the discussion about the nation's drug war to unprecedented levels, Lee said.

"The fact that millions of Californians voted to legalize marijuana is a tremendous victory," Lee said. "We have broken the glass ceiling. Prop. 19 has changed the terms of the debate. And that was a major strategic goal."

A Newsweek study found more than 1,800 articles on the measure, a 50 percent increase over coverage of Prop. 215 in 1996.

Prop. 19's lack of votes can be attributed to youth voter apathy, funding problems and a powerful attack from both the left and the right, among other factors. An exit poll done by Edison Research of 2,200 precincts Tuesday found just 10 percent of voters considered Prop. 19 their number one issue. Paid for by the Los Angeles Times, the Edison poll showed half of voters thought the governor's race was the main event. Even among young voters, Prop. 19 came in third in importance.

Yes on 19 had 219,000 Facebook fans, compared with No on 19's 1,000, but it didn't translate into enough votes. Campaign headquarters made 56,000 calls Tuesday, but lacked that energy several weeks back as the deadline to register to vote passed. I interviewed young smokers who supported Prop. 19 but never registered. Another young smoker said he would have voted yes, but failed to register absentee and vote before a planned trip overseas. And young voters aren't a monolithic block. The Bay Citizen filmed conservatives and contrarians at UC Berkeley who were voting against the measure.

Prop. 19 didn't raise much money. It was an outsider campaign that shot for $15 million and got less than $5 million. Arguably, if Tax & Regulate got the money it could've bought votes through advertising. But using Meg Whitman's dollars-for-votes campaign as a benchmark, Prop. 19 would have needed about $25 million total.

The Obama administration is also bound by federal law and international treaty to fight legalization. Three weeks before the election, US Attorney General Eric Holder said he would "vigorously enforce" federal law in California if Prop. 19 passed. He was joined in opposition by Jerry Brown, Meg Whitman, Barbara Boxer, Dianne Feinstein, Nancy Pelosi, both attorney general candidates, the Chamber of Commerce, the police lobby and fundamentalist Christians who banned gay marriage via Prop. 8. Defeating Prop. 19 was probably the one thing in the 2010 election that the Tea Party and hardline Democrats could agree upon.

"Its utterly shameful this president and this administration chose to stick to the old line and it is something that they will come to regret," said campaigner James Anthony.

Prop. 19 also faced a significant backlash in the radical drug reform community. The so-called "Stoners Against Legalization" were a minority of a minority, but a vocal one. They said Prop. 19 was a bad law that didn't go far enough and viewed it through a lens of vehement anti-capitalism. It did not carry the growing communities in the Emerald Triangle.

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger also threw a curve ball at the end of the campaign when he signed a bill making personal possession of marijuana an infraction -- equivalent to a speeding ticket. The governor's signature amplified the popular idea that pot is already pretty much legal in California. The awkward medical cannabis industry has emerged as a state of detente between warriors and reformers. Citizens apparently feel comfortable giving speeding tickets to recreational smokers, but jail time to their suppliers and growers, who are often minorities. More than 14,000 Californians were arrested for cannabis sales in 2007, and they face prison for repeat counts.

Prop. 19 had always faced long odds. In the 20th Century, 73 initiative measures related to prohibition, drugs and alcohol circulated. Only 20 qualified for the ballot and just five were approved by voters. The last time pot legalization appeared on the ballot was in 1972, when it was defeated (33-66). Medical cannabis passed soundly in 1996 (55-44). So did rehab-not-jail measure Prop. 36 in 2000 (60-39). But further decriminalization efforts in 2008, under Prop. 5, failed (59-40).

On a larger level, Prop. 19 tried and failed to use the window of opportunity created by the immense economic hole the state has dug for itself. The Depression helped end alcohol prohibition, but the Great Recession failed to stop the war on pot. Californians say they feel strapped, but even under a World War's worth of debt, they've proven willing to spend $1 billion a year enforcing unenforceable pot laws.

Even though California rejected 19 the spirit of the initiative was embraced from blue county to red. Ten cities passed 11 tax measures on medical marijuana. Berkeley added six historic cultivation licenses. In conservative Sacramento, a medical cannabis taxation measure passed soundly with 70 percent of the vote. Measure U in San Jose, another cannabis tax, passed 78 to 21. Bans on dispensaries in Santa Barbara and Morro Bay went down in defeat. As the Associated Press has reported, medical cannabis is all but a fig leaf over a tumescent cannabis culture that is only getting bigger.


David Downs writes the Legalization Nation column for the East Bay Express.

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