Prop 19 Burnout: Why Did Pot Legalization Fail In California?

Attorney Omar Figueroa in a medical marijuana garden in Sonoma County, California.
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On Tuesday, California residents voted down Proposition 19, the state’s marijuana legalization ballot initiative, by a 54%-46% margin. A few months ago, statewide polling on the initiative found that Californians were in support of the measure significantly more than they were in opposition to it. As September survey results rolled in, however, findings began to suggest a stark shift in public opinion and the California legalization narrative was flipped on its head. In the final two months leading up to election day, opposition steadily increased in the polls while support markedly dwindled.

So what happened?

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The initiative, which sought to authorize the legalization and taxation of marijuana for personal consumption, has been in the public eye for quite some time. Supporters of the measure have argued legalization would have resulted in billions of dollars in saved and earned state revenue, while slamming the discriminatory nature of the war on drugs.

Naysayers ranged from “tokers” claiming Prop 19 “isn’t really legalization” to those concerned about the measure’s effects on public safety.

Did opponents’ laundry list of objections simply win out? Not likely. According to Ethan Nadelmann, Executive Director of the Drug Policy Alliance, in a press call yesterday, voters may have just been hesitant to vote yes on the measure, conceding to the “discomfort” and “fear of change” factors. Though admittedly unsure why exactly this may have been the case, he cited actions by Attorney General Eric Holder and California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger as potential catalysts for the mass hesitation.

At the federal level, Holder announced in mid-October that the U.S. government would “vigorously enforce” federal law as it pertains to marijuana use, even if Prop 19 won out. At the state level, Schwarzenegger signed a bill in late-September that downgrades the possession of an ounce or less of marijuana from a misdemeanor to an infraction. As a result, the pro-legalization argument of inappropriate incarceration for minor offenses was effectively quashed.

Could this explain why polling at the beginning of September had support nearing 50% with opposition around 40%, whereas late-October saw a complete 180, with opposition hovering around 50% and support struggling to eclipse the 40% mark? Anna Greenberg, Senior Vice President of the polling firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, offered another possible explanation in yesterday’s press call– the Prop 19 campaign may have simply been “drowned out” by the Senate and governors races dominating television and radio airwaves. Nate Silver, in his pre-election analysis, expressed a similar belief, noting that “Proposition 19 may simply be getting swamped by the races for governor and Senate in California, both of which are quite competitive.” He continued to say that the $860,000 raised by groups in favor of Prop 19 is “infinitesimal as compared with the tens of millions of dollars invested in the Senate and governor’s races, which is on the order of $200 million in the aggregate…”

While voters’ rejection of the ballot measure is certainly a major hit to the legalization process, some aren’t willing to call the results a failure. Greenberg noted that Prop 19 set a record for the most amount of votes in favor of a marijuana-legalizing ballot measure. She also pointed out that Prop 19 received more votes than Republican gubernatorial nominee Meg Whitman, who spent more than $140 million on her failed bid.

Nadelmann contended that there is “no question that Prop 19 had a fundamentally transformative effect– it legitimated discourse about marijuana.” Furthermore, “there is a very strong sense that the whole movement is dramatically ahead of where it was a year and a half ago…it’s very rare to lose on election day, and leave further ahead of where you started, but that’s the case today.”

In a post-election Prop 19 survey conducted by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner and a national Gallup poll from late-October, findings suggest that public opinion is trending more and more towards general support for legalization.

So what’s next for the pro-legalization movement? “People are talking about coming back to the ballot in 2012,” Nadelmann said. He maintained that other states are becoming “likely candidates for future ballot propositions” as public opinion shows more and more support for legalization. In considering the numbers, Greenberg contended that “Our view is that legalization is poised to win in 2012.”

During the press call, Nadelmann was asked when planning for 2012 would begin.

“Yesterday,” he responded.

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