Legalizing Marijuana – A post-election analysis
by Steve Kubby
Proposition 19, the California voter initiative to “legalize” marijuana, was doomed from the very beginning. The problem was polling, which was always weak. Despite plenty of theories by the Yes on 19 group on why polling was wrong or didn’t matter, it mattered. The fact is that Prop. 19 never polled high enough to indicate a clear shot at victory. Hopefully, if and when we get an opportunity at financing another initiative, polling will be given much more weight than this time around.
Regardless of polling, this initiative was dead on arrival, because it was proposed during a midterm election. Based upon the low turnout of young people from this past election, it is clear that if Prop. 19 had been proposed two years later, when young voters traditionally flock to the polls to vote on a president, it would have passed. In fact, there was a general consensus by activists and funders that 2010 was the wrong election and no proposed initiative could pass. Despite strong pressure to wait until 2012, the Prop. 19 group soldiered on, ignoring the pitfalls that lay ahead.
Now that the election is over, it is time to publicly question the wisdom of supporting any initiative that promotes taxing cannabis. Yes, lots of folks think it will make us safer to pay taxes, but we’ve yet to see that to be the case. We didn’t need taxes to sell voters on supporting Prop. 215, California’s historic medical marijuana law, why do we need it now? Frankly, any taxation of cannabis, except for retail outlets for non-medical use, will invite the same fishing expeditions that the police already conduct based upon plant numbers. We can only hope that the next initiative will focus on real legalization and not peddling a watered down version of decriminalization with a sin tax, like we saw with Prop. 19.
Real legalization means something is totally legal and not subject to a long list of rules and regulations. Had Prop. 19 been more focused on providing real legalization, it would have enjoyed much greater support from activists and voters. If you look at the history of voter initiatives on medical marijuana, you’ll see that the highest vote totals went to initiatives like Prop. 215, which boldly established new rights, without space or plant limits or complicated regulatory schemes. Watered down initiatives have always resulted in poor results at the polls.
Another problem with Prop. 19 is that it was too vague with too many weasel words. We expunged all the weasel words from Prop. 215 and it is unfortunate that the same was not done before Prop. 19 qualified for the ballot.
Furthermore, the initiative itself pandered to police and prohibitionists, something many activists found to be especially obnoxious. Such pandering never helps to win votes, only to discourage activists from becoming involved. In short, this initiative was ill-conceived, poorly written and badly timed.
Prop. 215 was historic and successful, because it was short and to the point, much like the Bill of Rights. Prop. 19 was an administrative scheme that didn’t establish any rights, just a confusing regulatory outline that would have resulted in providing police with a new way to convict marijuana users for tax evasion.
Richard Lee, who spent his life savings to qualify 19 for the ballot, is a brilliant and dedicated activist who mounted an impressive effort to recruit minorities, unions, former police and judges, and phone bank volunteers. But Lee gambled that he could get young people to show up at a midterm election. Now, one must ask why anyone in the 18-21 age group would show up and vote for an initiative that specifically excluded them from participation. Excluding 18-21 year olds was totally unnecessary — it didn’t help us win any votes and it alienated an entire age group of young voters from showing up.
There is much that could have been added to Prop. 19 or to any future initiatives. For example, if a prosecutor loses a case against a defendant who otherwise was entitled to initiative protection, then the District Attorney’s office should automatically be held liable for defendant’s court costs. Furthermore, all future initiatives should make it crystal clear that nothing in that initiative can be used to modify or limit any rights already granted under Prop. 215.
Lee has already announced his group will introduce another initiative in 2012. That’s good news. Hopefully, lessons were learned and the next initiative by Lee’s group will be one we can all support and that will finally achieve victory.