Postscript to California’s marijuana vote

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?”


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.

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I would like to see proponents of the legalization bill in 2012 introduce the concept of the LD50 into the argument. I don’t think most proponents are even aware of the “Lethal Dosage of 50% of (test) Animals” (LD50) toxicological term.

When applied to Cannabis, the LD50 test shows it to be one of the most benign substances ingested by humans. For rats the number is: 1,270,000,000 ng/kg
An average human male would need to consume 1,500 pounds in 14 minutes time to induce a lethal reaction. This would be very difficult indeed.

The LD50 numbers for everyday common medicines and even vitamins dwarfs that for cannabis. You can kill yourself by overdosing on Vitamin D. You cannot kill yourself by overdosing on cannabis.

Posted by DanGivens | Report as abusive

Most people are ignorant of the history of Cannabis,it’s uses ,it’s effects,how prohibition came about, the fact that it was legal prior to 1937. Our government is responsible for 70 years of misinformation and outright lies ,even ignoring their own research that went counter to their anti-drug program.

Posted by LLLou | Report as abusive

Alcohol prohibition in the US run from 1919 to 1933 – Now google ‘The Great Wall Street Crash’ and see when that happened!

The second biggest business during prohibition in Detroit was liquor at $215 million a year and employing about 50,000 people. Authorities were not only helpless to stop it, many were part of the problem. During one raid the state police arrested Detroit Mayor John Smith, Michigan Congressman Robert Clancy and Sheriff Edward Stein.

The Mexican cartels are ready to show, that when it comes to business, they also like to be nonpartisan. They will buy-out or threaten politicians of any party, make deals with whoever can benefit them, and kill those who are brave or foolish enough to get in their way.

If you support prohibition you’ve helped evolve local gangs into transnational enterprises with intricate power structures that reach into every corner of society, controlling vast swaths of territory with significant social and military resources at their disposal.

During alcohol prohibition, all profits went to enrich thugs and criminals. Young men died every day on inner-city streets while battling over turf. A fortune was wasted on enforcement that could have gone on treatment. On top of the budget-busting prosecution and incarceration costs, billions in taxes were lost. Finally the economy collapsed. Sound familiar?

If you have liberty then expect prosperity, but there’s most definitely no chance of prosperity without liberty.

Posted by malcolmkyle | Report as abusive

I still don’t understand all this media concern about federal supremacy and international treaties.

California and 14 other American states have been in violation of these international treaties ever since they legalized the possession, cultivation and sale of medical marijuana (in California’s case, 14 years ago). The federal government & the international community holds that there is no such thing as “medical” marijuana (only marijuana), so all cannabis transactions are currently violating federal law as well as our international treaty obligations.

Does this matter? Hardly. The international community has not revolted and the US federal government (after initially vowing to vigorously enforce federal law — just like they did a few weeks ago if Prop. 19 passed) has done very little. In fact, the US Supreme Court has found state medical marijuana laws to be Constitutional. The feds are free to enforce federal law (which they frankly don’t have the resources or will to do), but California can still choose not to punish people for consuming, possessing, cultivating or distributing marijuana under the circumstances they see fit. States can even require sellers to pay sales tax (both federal and state).

Why does no one ever mention this inconvenient fact?

Posted by Historian_SF | Report as abusive

One might become suspicious of the author’s leaning when he states the vote was 56% against vs. 46% for. Not even “new” math came up with the total of voters as 102%. Let’s not credit the reactionary 54% with any more numbers than they deserve.

Posted by the_Gaul | Report as abusive

Replying to Dan Givins;
You can cite the facts and studies till the cows come home and you will not change the minds of the rabid prohibitionists because they do not operate from Logic.Most of them are bible thumpers and are convinced that they know how to run your life better than you do.
Malcombkyle; I appreciate your comments,keep the faith.

Posted by LLLou | Report as abusive

Numbers rarely lie. Momentum favors eventual passage. How many Californians who voted against it, will be around in two years? When Haliburten discovers a way of making ethanol out of “switched grass”, the conservatives will be swayed to amend their moral superiority on the drug issues. LLLou, you gotta believe one day we can thump our cannibis bible buzzing with the Lord.

Posted by pHenry | Report as abusive

Some should be ashamed for mocking anti-legal camp because they make more sense than the ones who can’t wait to justify their own drug habits. Its very sad to see so many americans unable to grasp why such a law exists. And last time I checked, Obama isnt a “bible-thumper”, yet hes passionatly against legalizing, that should tell you something. There is no point in arguing with people who have become slaves to many substances.

Posted by Dioxholster | Report as abusive

Did you know the Feds actually prescribe marijuana joints to about four or five people in the U.S who have been getting it for years? Yeah, hundreds of j’s at a time. One of these people who has a federal license to burn, has been arrested on numerous occassions and it’s only after it’s been verified that his Fed Card is legit, that they’re released. So, what your Gov’t is telling you is that out of millions of people who use, only these five have a legitimate right to do so. Hypocrisy at it’s finest!

Posted by schmetterling | Report as abusive


So why does such a law exist? Presumably it was created to keep people from smoking marijuana. This has failed utterly. Marijuana use is widespread. It’s easier for minors to buy marijuana than alcohol.

Whatever your views of marijuana and those who smoke it, prohibition has failed. Unless drug laws were created to provide a source of income to criminals while doing nothing to prevent chronic users, they have failed.

Posted by CapitalistBagel | Report as abusive

NO, I don’t need any justification for my enjoying Cannabis, the ones I love and who love me are OK with it,that’s good enough for me. As far as being ashamed for pointing out the Ignorance of the prohibitionists, NOT A CHANCE,I am but a humble messenger.
Can YOU explain to us why Cannabis was prohibited ?
Obama smoked Cannabis and enjoyed it. Obama may not be a bible thumper, but I’ll tell you what he IS.
Obama is a Nicotine addicted hypocrite.

Posted by LLLou | Report as abusive

I’d love to see cannabis legalized in California. It would give me a great reason to take a cross country road trip and stock up (I live in Virginia and doubt pot will ever be legalized in my lifetime).

Another thought — I get the impression that some of the readers on Reuters don’t truly know California. Most people around the world naturally think of L.A. or the Bay Area or even the lovely north coast region. These tend to be quite liberal. But there’s another California: the agricultural Central Valley and the super wealthy enclaves south of Los Angeles proper. These are very conservative. If you go to Bakersfield you might be surprised to hear heavy Southern accents reminiscent of those in Texas or Arkansas. It would hard to find a more conservative city than San Diego. Marijuana legalization may well occur at some point down the road, but it will have to do it without the support of these areas. They’ll never go for it.

Posted by IntoTheTardis | Report as abusive

This story was a blatant attempt to coin a new phrase.

Schizophrenic pragmatism? Really?

I’m guessing you wrote a long essay on your SAT’s
/antipathy font needed

Posted by hypodoche | Report as abusive

Any law that suffers from widespread disrespect by the people it is supposed to benefit is a candidate for change. The legal prohibition of cannabis is way past due for repeal, and has been defacto repealed by the behavior of both law enforcement and marijuana users.

Ironically “mom and pop” growers are happy with the current state of affairs since prices remain high, large corporate growers remain outside the business, and law enforcement is close to nil. The dark side of prohibition are its continued benefits to Mexican drug cartels who presumably will lose market share to California growers should decriminalization actually happen. The drug cartels are the bad guys in this scenario and for this reason alone the law needs to be repealed with all deliberate speed.

Posted by sshurwitz | Report as abusive

Free Market Hemp is the solution to our current economic crisis, industrial hemp can replace oil as a source of fuel, fiber, plastics, food, medicine and inspiration. The Tea Party is for Free Market Hemp and will join in the Voice of the People as we stand abar against the prohibition of our most valuable resource. Prop 19 showed our power and if focused on the upcoming 2012 elections can make the critical difference in what is sure to be volatile and up for grabs. We will support any candidate that supports Free Market Hemp. We will be the difference.
Plant It Everywhere, George Washington …

Posted by timedonkey | Report as abusive

Free citizens taking action that implies individual sovereignty, a higher claim that state law, federal law or international law. This is a revolutionary rejection of the power of the status quo to control the people by an arbitrary and capricious conspiracy of big world wide government and big business. Millions of folks voted for prop 19 just to get the cops to stop persecuting us and not one single politician support us. How represents us now?

Posted by timedonkey | Report as abusive

The most puzzling part of this whole issue is Schwarzenegger’s and Obama’s blatant hypocrisy and spinelessness. Both are well-documented users of marijuana. And did I mention Al Gore? What will it take for one of these guys to man-up and state publicly that the TIME HAS COME!! For Christ’s sake, what are they waiting for? Or what about Bill Clinton? Just one person of that profile will be all it takes. But again, they are spineless politicians, or, in Schwarzenegger’s case, a freakin’ GIRLY MAN! That’s right, Mr. Terminator, you’re a GIRLY MAN. GIRLY MAN. GIRLY MAN. GIRLY MAN GIRLY MAN GIRLY MAN

Posted by mheld45 | Report as abusive

Did I mention: Arnold Schwarzenegger, former Terminator and current Governor is a GIRLY MAN.

Posted by mheld45 | Report as abusive

Capitalist Bagel wrote: “It’s easier for minors to buy marijuana than alcohol.”
What this statement tells me is that alcohol vendors at least have the sanity to restrain sales to minors.

Will pop-and-mom growers drive the drug cartels out of business, like some comments above say? Not a chance.
The most likely outcomes are more aggressive efforts to expand the user base, which may include “strategic pricing” (“try some for free!”), cultivation of young would-be pot-smokers (i.e. kids) and product innovation (some derivative that pushes the envelope on “legal use”), in my prediction.

The worst thing about marijuana, compared with the hard drugs, is that it’s difficult, even for morons, to OD!

Posted by captain_ahab | Report as abusive

In a nation rapidly attempting to move to figuring out a way to ban tobacco, further demonize alcohol, and attempting to equate advertising hamburgers to promoting national obesity-doesn’t it strike anyone as really odd that there’s a growing drive to legalize marijuana?

Oh, and having been nearly killed on highway 1 by a Rastafarian looking young man in smoke-filled Rav4 passing a bowl back to the passenger-yeah……keep dreaming on the whole driving delusion.

Posted by dzoo35 | Report as abusive

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

[…] Will California’s failed Proposition 19 launch a global conversation about marijuana prohibition? Reuters had an interesting post-election analysis on the measure here. […]

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[…] Hey, at least Prop 19 got more votes than Meg Whitman. 300,000 more. Reuters Blog […]

Posted by Weed’s Week in News: October 31-November 6, 2010 ‹ | 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.

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[…] perpetual “blue state” is no stranger to high taxes and government regulations, and last year nearly voted to legalize marijuana. But California’s criminal justice system doesn’t extend as far to the […]

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