In 2008, California police made 78,500 arrests related to marijuana. This fall, voters in our State will be asked to vote on Proposition 19, also known as the Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis Act of 2010. It legalizes a variety of marijuana-related activities, allows local governments to regulate these activities, impose and collect marijuana-related fees and taxes, and authorizes various criminal and civil penalties for persons furnishing pot to minors.
There is polling that suggests that California voters will approve the initiative. During the 2008 election cycle I came upon Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight.com, which does detailed analysis of various polls, along with its own surveys and tries to winnow out some truth. Mr. Silver’s take on Proposition 19 is quite interesting.
What it shows is that polls conducted by human beings, as opposed to robo polls yield varying results, with respondents telling computers that they support legalization by a significant margin. In the three polls done by non-humans, legalization passes by an average margin of 13%; three polls conducted by actual humans show legalization losing by just short of 3%.
Another interesting aspect of these results is the split between white voters and minority voters on the issue: minority voters seem inclined to reject legalization by margins as large as 26%, with Hispanic voters showing the most opposition to the act.
Latino voters make up 37% of California’s population and 21% of its registered voters, a number that has doubled over the past two decades. Black voters, who make up nearly 10% of the state’s population (and vote in proportion to their numbers), opposed legalization by nearly 12% in a recent poll. In 2008 African Americans and Latinos combined comprised less than 44% of the state’s population, but together constituted 56% of the people arrested in California for possessing marijuana.
I’m referencing these numbers about minorities because they go the core of the argument (I believe) that will be going on in voters’ heads as they mark their ballots. Regardless of drug usage in all groups, a survey commissioned by the National Institutes of Health shows a remarkably high percentage of the population operates under the assumption that marijuana consumption is associated with danger or great risk.
While government sponsored studies repeatedly demonstrate low risk factors associated with pot smoking, fifty years of propaganda have left their mark, even when one discounts those who feel that the risk associated with pot smoking is primarily from law enforcement.
Past surveys of voters associated with marijuana legalization initiatives in Colorado and Nevada give you an idea about why people who might otherwise vote “yes” say “no” when it comes down it: “Why should we add another vice?” In minority communities, where alcoholism and drug abuse have long been more than theoretical issues, a substantial portion of the voting populace will always vote “no” on these kinds of issues.
The California campaign to pass Proposition 19 knows that this “not another vice” is the argument they have to win. That’s why the initiative is named “The Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis Act of 2010”. Their strategy is to allay voter concerns by offering a revenue stream to a State plagued by budget crises over the past twenty years.
If you go to the Yes On 19 website, the banner is “Control & Tax Cannabis 2010”, and the arguments in the Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) are centered around revenue and cost issues, ie., $1.4 Billion in additional taxes, $200 million saved in law enforcement costs, $12 – $18 billion a year for California’s economy from spin-off industries and between 60,000 and 110,000 new jobs. Hell, you have to wonder why Meg Whitman doesn’t support this, if you believe her tv ads.
Similarly, if you go to the Marijuana Policy Project—which provides support for similar initiatives nationally with an annual budget of over $5 million—the headlines are:
Focus police priorities on real crime, not marijuana users.
In 2008, more than 78,000 Californians were arrested on marijuana charges – 80% for simple possession, not sale or manufacture. During the same year, almost 60,000 violent crimes went unsolved.
Fund vital state programs without raising taxes on families.
Marijuana is California’s top cash crop but this industry goes untaxed while Sacramento raises taxes on middle-class families and is making deep cuts to police, schools, and hospitals.
Get the drug dealers out of our streets and schools.
Prohibition creates an unregulated, criminal market for marijuana where drug dealers routinely sell to kids. Regulating marijuana will take marijuana out of the hands of criminals and put it where it belongs: in a well regulated, licensed market only available to adults.
The game plan for Prop. 19 is to appeal to the instincts of Californians who believe the drug war has failed. They will not try to change the minds of those who think marijuana prohibition has been a success. They are out to mobilize those who already support the cause and make sure they show up to vote; it also means they will focus on convincing voters who have some sense that criminalizing pot has done more harm than good that this measure is the right answer to this policy crisis.
(Note: The OBRag will give full coverage of all the ballot propositions in the weeks prior to the elections.)
There are two potentially thorny issues for supporters: lack of funding and a surprising number of legalization supporters who have come out against the act.
Reports from the California Secretary of State’s office show just $61,000 in the bank. That’s not good news in a Statewide election where one candidate for office (Meg Whitman) has already spent over a $100 million. The most prominent of Prop. 19’s opponents, the unions representing corrections officers, according to various conservative bloggers, spend more than that amount on toilet paper every month.
Much of the cash that got Prop. 19 on the ballot came from Oakland marijuana magnate Richard Lee. And that connection has some legalization advocates sputtering. A group calling itself “Stoners Against The Tax Cannabis Initiative” has posted an essay entitled “18 Reasons To Vote Know”, laying out their case that “…not only does the initiative not end the drug war, it apparently taxes the drug to fund the drug war.”
Some of Mr. Lee’s competitors in the dispensary business like the status quo. Others, like this guy mentioned in a Huffington Post article, claim that the act is the handiwork of Big Tobacco interests: “Did you know that Phillip Morris just bought 400 acres of land up in Northern California? The minute marijuana becomes legal, they’ll mass produce and flood the market.”
The one way that a campaign without major funding can beat the odds in a political race is with massive grass roots (pun sort of intended) support. In the case of Prop. 19, it looks like the broad support needed may be undermined by dissension in the ranks. Ironically, the paranoiac behavior of some of the legalize it opposition could make a good argument for those who brood over the negative effects of long term heavy marijuana use.
So while there may be polling that suggests that Californians will support the legalization of pot, the campaign is ill-equipped to counter the kinds of “fear based” arguments that it’s opponents will field. While there are some strategists that are positing that support for the legalization initiative may drive up progressive vote counts on November 2nd, others remain very skeptical.
The notion of relying on marijuana to increase voter motivation is not easy for me to accept. I think that it’s more likely that too many stoners will “forget” to go to the polls. I think that the economic arguments are, by themselves, not enough to convince the electorate. I think Proposition 19 will fail. That said, I’ll vote for it.
Go ahead, prove me wrong!
Part Four: Alcohol: The 800 Pound Elephant in the Room
Part Five: The Future Stoner