California's Proposition 19 Falls Short, but Moves the Marijuana Policy Debate Forward

Prop 19 marks the end of a chapter, but not the end of the story for marijuana policy reform
Wednesday, November 3, 2010

say_yes_prop19The California ballot initiative that would have legalized marijuana under state law was defeated at the polls Tuesday, garnering about 46 percent of the vote.  Over the course of the campaign, the measure achieved notoriety in Latin America , and provoked anxiety on the part of the Colombian and Mexican governments in particular.  WOLA has long promoted more effective and humane drug policies in the Americas, and in recent years we have seen the debate begin to open, not least in response to Prop 19.  So what does Prop 19's defeat foretell for the debate over alternatives to marijuana prohibition?

  As a practical matter, the likely impact of Prop 19's passage on Colombian and Mexican illicit drug production and trafficking operations would have been slight.  But at the symbolic level, Prop 19 took on great importance, in light of the U.S. government's role as chief architect and promoter of the "war on drugs," including the marijuana prohibition regime embedded in the UN drug conventions.  To be sure, marijuana legalization under state law - even a state as large as California - wouldn't have immediate consequences for federal law and for the U.S. commitment to marijuana prohibition under the global drug control system.  But the measure's mere presence on the California ballot generated enormous attention in Latin America, so it's fair to ask what the voting results may signify.

First, a loss is a loss.  Surveys leading up to Election Day made it clear that a victory for Prop 10 would come as a surprise, and would require heavy turnout by young voters.  Exit polling indicates that young voters did indeed support the measure strongly, but they did not turn out in record numbers.  With nearly all precincts having reported, Prop 19 fell short by more than half a million votes.  From the vantage point of the November 2008 presidential elections, which featured an energized youth vote, the prospects for a measure like Prop 19 might have looked decent.  But by November 2010, the climate had changed.

Nevertheless, for proponents of a vigorous debate over alternatives to marijuana prohibition, silver linings in Prop 19's defeat are not hard to find.  Supporters of Prop 19 contend that the debate generated by the measure "has moved marijuana legalization into the mainstream of American politics."  While supporters are of course putting a brave face on defeat, they are also likely to be proven correct.  Politics is too complicated for anything to be considered inevitable, but Prop 19 seems to be the end of a chapter but not the end of the story of marijuana policy reform.

At least as the debate played out in California, for many voters the implicit question was not whether to create a legal, regulated framework for marijuana, but how to best go about it.  A good deal of the opposition to Prop 19 was expressed in terms of concern over the measure's particular provisions and how they would be implemented, rather than as hostility to the very idea of a legal, regulated market for marijuana.  "The cover of the book looked nice," in the words of an opposition spokesman, "but it didn't read very well.  This specific initiative was massively flawed."  To stretch the point, it may even be that Prop 19's loss was a blessing in disguise for those who favor a regulatory regime for marijuana.  Had Prop 19 prevailed on November 2 but become bogged down in the details and complications of implementation, it might have become a negative symbol of alternatives to prohibition, and an easy target for defenders of the status quo ready to ascribe any and all problems associated with Prop 19 to the idea of legalized marijuana generally.

And while the youth vote that would have been required for Prop 19 to have a shot at winning didn't materialize, the generational shift in the United States toward more liberal attitudes about marijuana seems to favor reform, sooner or later.  As the Pew Research Center reported earlier this year, the proportion of Americans who think marijuana should be made legal has been steadily increasing, rising from 16 percent in 1987 to 41 percent in 2010, led by strong support among people younger than 30.

In a winner-take-all democratic voting system, it's easy to read too much into any particular victory or defeat.  There is the chance that California's Prop 19 - and the nearly 3.4 million votes it garnered yesterday - will come to be seen as the high-water mark in U.S. efforts to replace marijuana prohibition with regulation.  But that seems unlikely.  The level of debate generated by Prop 19 and Americans' increasingly liberal attitudes toward marijuana suggest that if defenders of marijuana prohibition feel vindicated today, they also feel uneasy about what the future holds.


Also see:

All Eyes on California :  Prop 19 and the Growing Debate on Marijuana Policy (October 2010)

Development First:  A More Humane and Promising Approach to Reducing Cultivation of Crops for Illicit Markets (with Coletta Youngers, 2010)

Assessing U.S. Drug Policy in the Americas :  Time to Revisit Goals and Strategies (testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives, 2009)

Drug Decriminalization:  A Trend Takes Shape (with Coletta Youngers, 2009)

Lowering Expectations: Supply Control and the Resilient Cocaine Market (2009)