Postscript to California’s marijuana vote

By Bernd Debusmann
November 5, 2010

From America’s mid-term elections, two noteworthy comparative results. A modestly funded ballot initiative to legalize marijuana in California drew 300,000 more votes than a billionaire businesswoman who spent well over $140 million of her own money to try to become the state’s governor. Both lost.

The hotly debated marijuana ballot measure attracted 3.4 million yes votes. Meg Whitman drew 3.1 million voters. It’s not clear whether she will run again but proponents of the marijuana measure, Proposition 19, are already planning to make another attempt in 2012. They think the California vote shows legalization is a matter of when, not if, never mind that this time they fell more than half a million votes short of success.

Proposition 19 would have allowed Californians over 21 to grow up to 25 square feet (2.3 sq metres) of marijuana and possess up to an ounce for personal consumption. It would have turned California, America’s most populous state, into the world’s first jurisdiction to formally legalize marijuana. (Not even the Netherlands, which has a system best described as schizophrenic pragmatism, has gone that far).

Legalization would have brought California state law in conflict both with federal law and the international treaty that underpins the global war on drugs, the 1961 United Nations Single Convention on Narcotics Drugs. It placed marijuana alongside powerfully addictive drugs such as heroin, a wrong-headed classification which became U.S. federal law in 1970.

Backers of Proposition 19 gave little thought to the international ramifications of the measure, which was closely followed in Latin America and particularly closely in Mexico, where more than 30,000 people have been killed since President Felipe Calderon declared war on the country’s drug cartels in 2006.

Calderon, a vocal critic of the proposition, sent out a Twitter message on election night saying that any changes in policies on “the production, transport and consumption of drugs should be made in an integrated and global framework.” In other words: no country (or state) should go it alone.

Calderon’s tweet echoed the ideas discussed a few days before the mid-term elections at a summit of five Latin American presidents hosted by Colombia’s Juan Manuel Santos who wondered “how can I tell a farmer in my country who grows marijuana that I’ll put him in jail when in the richest state of the United States it’s legal to produce, traffic and consume the same product?”

PREPARING FOR 2012

Legalization didn’t happen on November 2, 2010, but it might happen in November 2012, when Americans vote for a president and congress, with turnout always higher than for mid-term elections. That’s why drug experts think the fact that almost 3.5 million Californians voted for legalization will spur debate not only over U.S. marijuana prohibition but over the global drug control system as a whole.

It has been rated a failure by a long string of prominent figures, including three former Latin American presidents (of Colombia, Mexico and Brazil) and the billionaire financier George Soros.

He contributed $1 million to support the legalization campaign a few weeks before the elections, when polls showed that voters were souring on proposition 19. In an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal, he wrote that America’s marijuana laws were doing more harm than good and had failed to prevent marijuana from becoming the most widely used illegal substance in the U.S.

So why did Proposition 19 founder? To hear its proponents tell it, the result (56 percent against, 46 percent for) stemmed from a combination of factors: fear of change, a lower than expected turnout by young voters, and an effective campaign by opponents to draw a dire picture of the possible social consequences of legal marijuana, from stoned drivers causing deadly crashes to businesses slowed down by employees reporting to work in too mellow a mood to function.

California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger probably widened the ranks of marijuana users who think the status quo is good enough (and therefore didn’t bother to vote) by signing a bill last month that reduced possession of an ounce or less of marijuana to the equivalent of a traffic ticket, with a maximum fine of $100. Previously offenders were arrested and left with a criminal record.

Richard Lee, the driving force behind Proposition 19, ascribed Schwarzenegger’s move to “the momentum of our campaign.” Lee, often described as a “marijuana entrepreneur”, prospered in the commerce of medical marijuana which has been legal in California since 1996. He drafted the text of the proposition and brought it to the ballot this year against the advice of reform advocates who thought mid-term elections, with their traditionally low turnout, would not be the best of time.

The chief aim of American marijuana policy reformers has been to get it treated in the same way as alcohol and tobacco – taxed, controlled and regulated – but the California legalization campaign shied away from comparing the effects of the three drugs for fear of being accused of encouraging one over the other.

Two days before the elections, a group of British experts led by the government’s former chief drugs adviser published a study that ranked the harm of drugs to the user and to society. Alcohol came first, followed by heroin, crack, methamphetamine, cocaine, tobacco and amphetamine. Marijuana came in eighth place.

It followed similar findings elsewhere and lends weight to the argument that it is time to change official attitudes towards marijuana. Proposition 19 promoters never mentioned it.

(You can contact the author at Debusmann@Reuters.com)

22 comments

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Marijuana has been touted by its advocates as both harmless and also as a powerful medicine. Can both really be true? Its detractors see social ruin in expanded permissiveness, yet live in denial that our system already runs with no real controls. Both groups suffer from denial of their own fears and motives, and operate from a placer of illusion and hypocrisy. This is not a solid foundation for creating policy.

The harsh reality for California is that a unilateral policy change is likely to create upheaval in other states and around the world. I know many people who travel from New Mexico to California for seasonal harvesting jobs on so-called “medical marijuana” farms. Without exception, these people take a high percentage of their pay in product, which they then transport out of state to sell. Whether or not you think cannabis is harmless, whether or not you support such action as civil disobedience, the truth is the existing system in California is a sham that survives to a large extent on redirection of legally grown product to illegal trafficking. The medical growers see market expension in local legalization, but that expansion will naturally need to exceed California’s own borders. We will see competition with the existing Mexican cartels, increased drug traffic to other states and an increase in criminal activity nationally.

This is initiative, and its future iterations, is about big dollars. Anyone who thinks it is about supporting mom and pop growers is a fool. Any future iteration of a legalization initiative needs to address this realistically.

Posted by earthshiva | Report as abusive

Before we can even talk about legalizing marijuana in California and the consequences it may cause, we must first examine the legalization for medical use. We must not forget that California has fought to allow this medicine for medical purposes.

One must realize that the one who needed this drug first is ill patients.

As a Medical Marijuana patient, I believe that we must work together with the Government to control and tax medical marijuana first.

Posted by Ken_Estes | Report as abusive