Reason On Marijuana: Just A Matter Of When

Just a Matter of When?
Legalizing marijuana has failed in California. But even in defeat, Proposition 19 might mark the beginning of the end for prohibition.

Brian Doherty from the February 2011 issue of Reason

On Homecoming Day at the University of Southern California, Elizabeth Tauro strode purposefully through the dense, shifting mob of pre-game partiers, bearing huge rolls of “Yes on 19” stickers on each arm.

Saying yes to California’s Proposition 19 would have meant that adults could legally possess up to an ounce of marijuana. They also would have been allowed to grow marijuana on up to 25 square feet of their property. Local governments would have been free to raise (but not reduce) these limits on possession and cultivation. They would also have been authorized to license, regulate, and tax sales of the long-demonized weed.

Tauro, a senior majoring in public policy, was working the crowd on this Saturday before Election Day on behalf of Students for Sensible Drug Policy. At this point in the campaign, she said, she was mostly “just letting everyone know that Tuesday is Election Day” rather than arguing the benefits of pot legalization. “Our generation supports reforming marijuana laws,” she said. “It’s just a question of whether they vote.”

Not enough of them did. Proposition 19 lost by 54 percent to 46 percent just six weeks after most polls showed it winning. The drug war’s foes had been on the verge of achieving a staggering victory, one that would have forced a confrontation with the federal government. Instead they saw history slip through their fingers.

Yet reformers are still optimistic. Prop. 19 won a higher vote total (and higher vote percentage) than any previous attempt to legalize pot in the United States. It made legalization—not medical marijuana, not decriminalization, but full legalization—a legitimate political debate in the country’s biggest state. And it forged a coalition that stretched far beyond the usual axis of antiprohibition activists, notwithstanding some dissension within the ranks. The opposition, meanwhile, conceded some important arguments to the reformers, suggesting that public opinion has moved further along than ever before. The legalization of marijuana, activists argue, is a matter of when, not if.

Who Supported Prop. 19
Prop. 19 sprang from the brain and bank account of Richard Lee, a medical marijuana entrepreneur who operates a big dispensary and associated retail stores in Oakland as well as Oaksterdam University, a vocational school for the new industry that has had more than 12,000 students pass through since 2007.

Lee has played the local politics of medical marijuana as skillfully as anyone, winning city approval for industrial-sized indoor growing operations to feed the medical distribution system as well as a statement of intent to legalize the general sale of marijuana to adults as soon as the state permits it. Lee’s opponents paint him as the would-be kingpin of legal pot, using the political system to guarantee that his in-the-works industrial grows will corner a market he is fighting to create.

Even while thriving within the medical marijuana system, Lee has always pushed for full legalization, because he thinks “prohibition is hypocritical, unjust, and unfair.” In March 2009, a poll Lee commissioned showed, for the first time, a majority of California voters supporting legalization. At that point, he began drafting language for a ballot initiative. Two other legalization measures vied for the 2010 ballot, but only Lee, who spent nearly $1 million just on gathering signatures, had the money to succeed.

Traditional drug reform groups initially either snubbed Lee or advised him that a presidential election year would be better. “It was surprising to see how hostile they got,” he says. Lee joined the board of the Marijuana Policy Project, hoping he could steer it toward supporting his initiative, but the group lacked the money and the will, leading Lee to resign and go it largely alone. Representatives of the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) did help him with drafting the language of the initiative, while remaining doubtful about the timing.

The major drug reform groups did eventually all get behind Prop. 19, and two of the biggest moneybags in reform circles, George Soros and Peter Lewis, chipped in during the last days of the campaign. (Soros’ $1 million donation was funneled not through Lee’s organization but through a separate pro-19 group managed by the DPA.) It “hurt us,” Lee says, that the big drug policy groups “didn’t get on board until late in the process.”

But long before Soros hopped on, the Yes on 19 coalition had expanded far beyond the drug policy world. Seasoned Democratic operatives joined the pro-19 campaign, even though incoming California Gov. Jerry Brown opposed it and Sen. Dianne Feinstein chaired the opposition. The progressive netroots blog Firedoglake launched a “Just Say Now” campaign that, together with Students for Sensible Drug Policy, placed 50,000 targeted get-out-the-vote calls. And perhaps most significantly, the proposition was endorsed by such drug policy newbies as the California chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the League of United Latin American Citizens of California.

“The groups most adversely affected by the drug war—minorities, Latinos, African Americans—were not [traditionally] in the fray,” says Neill Franklin, a former police officer who leads Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) When the NAACP endorsed Prop. 19, he says, it was “a game changer I called [Alice Huffman, head of the California NAACP,] up and told her I was law enforcement, and I was for Proposition 19. She said she practically fell out of her chair.” LEAP sent representatives to more than 250 events around the state, emphasizing that police and court resources should be used more productively than in the failed attempt to get people to stop selling and using a relatively benign drug. (A September 2010 study for the Cato Institute by Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron found that California spends $960 million a year on marijuana law enforcement.) LEAP recruited the National Black Police Association and the National Latino Officers Association for the cause.

Organized labor was another important source of new support. Dan Rush, special operations director for the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Union Local #5, got excited about the jobs that could be created in a legal market for marijuana and hemp. He convinced his union, against initial doubts, that “this initiative would create an industry in retail, agriculture, and food processing, and UFCW is a retail, agriculture, and food processing union.” He became labor director for the Yes on 19 campaign.

Rush convinced the powerful Service Employees International Union and the Northern California Council of the Longshoremen to back Prop. 19, and he persuaded the California Labor Federation (CLF) to refrain from opposing it. When the next legalization campaign comes along, Rush swears he’ll be able to move the CLF from neutrality to support, which could be a key step toward changing minds in the Democratic Party.

Who Didn’t Support Prop. 19
Although Prop 19 found new allies in the civil rights and labor movements, it did not have the unified support of the marijuana reform movement. The most successful and active medical marijuana group, Americans for Safe Access (ASA), was officially neutral. That in itself was not necessarily a problem. Given the group’s institutional mandate to deal exclusively with medical marijuana, Yes on 19 spokesperson Dale Sky Jones says, ASA’s neutrality was “the closest they could come to officially supporting us.”

Medical marijuana dispensaries were split on the issue. Although the initiative was ultimately crafted to change nothing at all about the laws in place protecting doctor-certified patients’ access to pot and their ability to grow, possess, and exchange it, rumors were rife that they would be hit with new limits on how much they could possess. (The current limit—set by court decisions, not statute—is whatever is deemed medically necessary for the patient.) Others noted that the proposition didn’t legalize smoking pot in public, and worried that this would be a loophole allowing authorities to harass medicinal smokers. Pro-19 canvassers say many dispensaries refused to allow campaign literature in their shops. Since the passage of California’s Compassionate Use Act in 1996, the medical folks had managed to create a market niche for sellers and a relatively safe haven for users, and many feared that opening up the market to more competition would be bad for their bottom line.

For the same reason, and with more anger, most of the growers from Northern California’s fertile Humboldt and Mendocino counties were against Prop. 19. The initiative lost in both. Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) and one of the oldest warriors in the national drug policy fight, says the growers rebelled when they decided there was “no way post-prohibition for anyone to fetch $15 or $25 for a gram of dried vegetable matter.” People currently making $25 to $30 an hour trimming weed in Humboldt imagined their jobs reduced to minimum-wage work or eliminated entirely.

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