Legalized Marijuana in California: Polls Now Show a Close Call
A landmark California initiative that would legalize marijuana and allow local governments to tax drug proceeds is coming under fire from many sides these days, including some advocates of medical marijuana use.
Despite leading in three of four public opinion surveys, the fate of Proposition 19 on the November ballot remains up in the air. The initiative, billed by its advocates as a "common sense" approach to marijuana control, appeared to be sailing to victory in late September when the venerable Field Poll found it leading by 7 percentage points among likely voters. Since then, however, Proposition 19 has experienced a series of setbacks -- last week a survey by Reuters/Ipsos, with a much smaller sampling than the Field Poll, found the initiative trailing.
Proposition 19 would permit any Californian who is 21 or over to grow marijuana for his personal use. It would also, more controversially, permit California's 478 cities and 58 counties to set their own rules on regulation, taxing, and retail sales of marijuana, creating what even some proponents of legalized pot say is likely to be a crazy quilt of new regulations. Nine California cities have advisory measures on the November ballot, seeking voter guidance on the taxation rates that should be imposed for marijuana sales.
Proposition 19 may have lost ground on Sept. 30 when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a law that, beginning Jan. 1, will reduce possession of an ounce or less of marijuana to an infraction equivalent to a traffic ticket, punishable only by a fine. This development would in other years have been cheered by advocates of legal marijuana. Instead, these advocates point out -- accurately-- that the measure was approved by the Legislature in order to head off Proposition 19. Even so, Stephen Gutwillig, California director of the Drug Policy Alliance that is promoting Proposition 19, acknowledged that the new law is a significant reform. Opponents of the ballot initiative, including Schwarzenegger, hope it is significant enough to derail Proposition 19.
This week Proposition 19 encountered two new setbacks. The first was a statement from George Mull, president of the California Cannabis Association, saying that the initiative is so poorly designed that it poses a threat to medical users of marijuana. California voters in 1996 legalized the sale and use of the drug for medical purposes with a doctor's prescription. Because Proposition 19 would allow localities to ban marijuana as well as tax it, medical marijuana dispensaries might be outlawed in some jurisdictions, Mull said.
A day after this statement, the Rand Corp., a nonpartisan research institute based in Santa Monica, issued a study which said that Proposition 19 would do little to curtail the violent Mexican drug cartels that smuggle marijuana across the border.
The view that Proposition 19 would curb drug smuggling has been a principal argument of proponents. Gutwillig maintains that the initiative would "deal a major blow to criminal syndicates on both sides of the border." But Beau Kimmel, co-director of Rand's Drug Policy Research Center, said that legal marijuana from California would heavily impact the Mexican cartels only if the drug is sold nationwide. "It's very hard to imagine that the feds would sit idly by and just let California marijuana dominate the country," Kimmel said.
Indeed, it is widely believed by local law enforcement officers that the federal government will challenge the constitutionality of Proposition 19 if it passes as a violation of federal law. The Justice Department under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama has tacitly allowed dispensing of marijuana for medical use, although this, too, violates federal statutes.
Proposition 19 is also coming under fire on health issues. Opponents of the measure generally concede that marijuana is less harmful than alcohol but say that there are nonetheless health risks associated with the drug. Studies have shown that about 9 percent of marijuana users become addicted compared to 15 percent of alcohol users; in a recent survey more than two thirds of the members of the California Society of Addiction Medicine said they expect marijuana addiction to increase if the drug is fully legalized.
Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Itai Danovitch of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, said that marijuana "does not cause dramatic physical dependence but can lead to substantial problems in education, work, and relationships." He called for applying revenues from legalization of marijuana "toward any problems that arise from its increased use." Proposition 19 makes no such allocation. It also contains no standard for testing when marijuana use has been excessive, such as the blood-alcohol test used for drivers who are suspected of being under the influence.
Whether any of these concerns will have an impact on the voters remains a matter of conjecture. Mark DiCamillo, director of the Field Poll, said in an interview that support for Proposition 19 reflects California's increasing tolerant culture and that its constituency is similar in composition to the opponents of Proposition 8, a 2008 initiative that banned gay marriage. (Proposition 8 won narrowly but was struck down by a federal court, and is now under appeal.)
"It took a massive television advertising campaign to pass Proposition 8; I don't see any similar advertising against Proposition 19," DiCamillo said.
Nor is there likely to be since opponents are under-funded and reliant on a public education campaign led by law enforcement and public figures such as Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who signed the ballot argument against Proposition 19. The initiative has been bankrolled by Richard Lee of Oakland, who operates a profitable medical marijuana dispensary and pot-growing nursery. Lee donated $1.5 million to qualify Proposition 19 for the ballot.
The Field Poll was founded by Mervin Field, still active in the firm at 88, and has been polling on California issues since 1945. Its findings show that Californians have become increasingly permissive on a variety of social issues, including marijuana use. When Field first asked the question about legalization of marijuana in 1969, only 13 percent favored it while 49 percent of voters wanted the state to pass new tough laws against the drug.
Intriguing and contradictory demographics come into play in analyzing the prospects of Proposition 19. California electorates in midterm balloting are invariably whiter and older than the electorates in presidential election years. That's a principal reason why Democrats have carried the state in the last five presidential elections while electing only one governor during this period. But the Field Poll shows that "older and whiter" cuts both ways on Prop. 19. Older voters are the ones most opposed to marijuana legalization. On the other hand, whites as a group favor legalization more than do Latinos, African Americans, or Asians.
DiCamillo believes that Proposition 19 may slightly increase the turnout of voters under 30, the constituency most in favor of legalization. These voters were 9 percent of the electorate in the last gubernatorial race in 2006 and 13 percent of the electorate when Obama was elected in 2008. DiCamillo expects turnout of these youngest voters to be right in the middle this time, 11 percent of the electorate.
Some Democrats have speculated that a larger turnout of the youngest cohort of voters will also boost the chances of Jerry Brown, the Democratic nominee for governor, in his tight race against Republican opponent Meg Whitman. DiCamillo sees no evidence of this. Bill Carrick, a respected Democratic consultant, thinks Proposition 19 is at most a tiny factor in the gubernatorial race, perhaps slightly increasing turnout on college campuses. Both Brown and Whitman oppose Proposition 19.
Whatever happens at the polls, advocates of legal marijuana can at least take comfort from the long-term trend in California. Indeed, with the new law making marijuana the equivalent of a traffic ticket, it might be said that they have mostly won their battle no matter what the voters decide on Proposition 19.