Why Legalization Failed

Proposition 19 loss stems from apathy, funding, fear, and loathing.

Don’t stop believin'” was the message from Proposition 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 Lee said Prop 19 elevated the discussion about the nation’s drug war to unprecedented levels.

“The fact that millions of Californians voted to legalize marijuana is a tremendous victory,” he 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 Proposition 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 at 2,200 precincts Tuesday found that just 10 percent of voters considered Prop 19 their number one issue. Even among young voters, Prop 19 came in third in importance.

Yes on 19 had 219,000 Facebook fans to 1,000 fans of No on 19, but that didn’t translate into enough votes. Campaign headquarters made 56,000 calls Tuesday, but lacked that energy several weeks earlier when the deadline to register to vote passed. Legalization Nation interviewed young smokers who supported Prop 19, but never registered. 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, either. It was an outsider campaign that shot for $15 million and got less than $5 million. Arguably, if the Regulate, Control & Tax Cannabis Act got more 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 hard-line Democrats could agree upon. “It’s 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 from its own flanks 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 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 détente 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 measures related to prohibition, drugs, and alcohol circulated. Only twenty 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 the statewide tax and regulate measure, the spirit of the initiative was embraced from blue county to red. Ten cities passed eleven tax measures on medical marijuana. Berkeley added six historic cultivation licenses. In conservative Sacramento, a medical cannabis taxation Measure C passed soundly with 70 percent of the vote. And Measure U in San Jose, another tax on cannabis measure, passed 78 to 21. Bans on dispensaries in Santa Barbara and Morro Bay went down in defeat. The Associated Press has reported medical cannabis is all but a fig leaf over a tumescent cannabis culture that is only getting bigger.


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