EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first in a series of stories examining issues involving this year’s election.
SACRAMENTO, Calif. (BP)–The battle for Congress may be in the political spotlight, but California is competing for attention with a ballot initiative that would make the state the first in the nation to legalize the growth, sale and recreational use of marijuana.
Although California, 13 other states and the District of Columbia already allow marijuana to be used for medicinal purposes, the California initiative — known as Prop 19 — would go much further, allowing people 21 and older to possess and use up to one ounce of marijuana for any reason. Businesses would be able to sell marijuana, and individuals would be allowed to grow their own marijuana in an area not larger than 25 square feet.
Prop 19 supporters are hailing it as a way to raise taxes and reprioritize police resources toward harder crimes, and they hope California serves as a model for the rest of the nation. But critics say it would only increase the number of marijuana and drug users — particularly among young adults and teens — and actually would lead to an uptick in crime. They also say any tax revenues — which the initiative would require go to local governments and not to the state — would be dwarfed by the social costs of its legalization.
Polls show voters are split on Prop 19, with some polls showing it slightly leading but under 50 percent. The election is Nov. 2.
Marijuana has been illegal on the federal level since 1937.
“If you legalize marijuana, you have another behavior-controlling substance that kids are now going to see as being normal,” said Chris Clark, pastor of East Clairemont Southern Baptist Church in San Diego. Clark opposes Prop 19. “It is only going to take two to three generations before that becomes widely accepted and that anybody who smokes marijuana is just part of the mainstream.
“Once it’s legalized, it becomes acceptable in the eyes of many. But just because something is legal doesn’t mean it’s morally right.”
The initiative has resulted in an odd coalition on both sides that does not follow the normal political and ideological divide. The opposition has had more high-profile endorsements. Opposing Prop 19 are both Democratic U.S. senators (Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein), the Democratic state attorney general (Jerry Brown), the Republican and Democratic candidates for governor, several major newspapers including the San Francisco Chronicle and the Contra Costa Times, the California Association of Highway Patrolmen, the California District Attorneys Association and the California Police Chiefs Association. Supporting it is the Service Employees International Union, which is a large statewide union, along with the California NAACP and former San Jose Police Chief Joseph McNamara.
“You can only do one thing with recreational marijuana, and that’s get high,” Ron Allen, president of the International Faith-Based Coalition, told Baptist Press. Allen, a minister, opposes Prop 19 and is a leading critic in the state. “To think about the consequences that will cost, in drugged driving, in health costs, is humongous. Why would anybody want to legalize an illicit drug?”
The No on Prop 19 campaign says passage of the initiative would lead to a host of consequences not addressed by Prop 19 supporters, such as:
— banning pre-employment marijuana testing, which could impact the public by affecting bus companies, airlines and other public transportation. The text of Prop 19 says employers can take action on employees only if it can be proven an individual’s pot smoking “impairs job performance.”
— allowing workplace marijuana smoking breaks.
— allowing residents to grow marijuana plants in their back or front yards, all with the protection of state law.
— increasing the number of drugged drivers on the road. Prop 19 forbids the consumption of marijuana by drivers while the car “is being operated” but permits marijuana consumption before a person drives. There is no alcohol-type breathalyzer test for marijuana. Also, passengers would be allowed to smoke pot while the car is moving.
— increasing drug trafficking elsewhere, especially into other states where marijuana is not legal.
— increasing the amount of in-state crime and necessary law enforcement. Police officers opposed to Prop 19 say that as the number of marijuana users increases, crime by those under the influence will increase. They also say they will be required to enforce new laws: whether an individual possesses more than one ounce and whether an individual’s marijuana crop falls within state limits, for instance.
The California NAACP supports Prop 19 because of what it says is a disparity of blacks arrested for marijuana possession. Allen, who is African American, said marijuana legalization will only hurt blacks.
“How in the world can we legalize a drug and say, ‘Let everyone stay high’ and believe they’re not going to get arrested for something else?” he asked. “It will cause more carnage, more devastation, more crime, more burglary in that community or in any other community. It doesn’t make sense. How can you educate an intoxicated mind? You can’t. It doesn’t make any sense.”
Allen added, “If Martin Luther King could hear something like that, he would turn over in his grave, knowing that our greatest civil rights organization is talking about legalizing a drug and calling that civil rights.”
Alaska currently has the nation’s most liberal policy on marijuana, and it may serve as a warning for California. After a 1975 state Supreme Court ruling legalized in-home possession — pot still couldn’t be used outside the home or sold — teen marijuana use skyrocketed to more than twice the national average, according to a 1988 study. Alaskans recriminalized marijuana at the ballot in 1990, although that law was overturned by a 2003 court ruling.
The vote on Prop 19 comes at a time when adult and teen drug use apparently is on the rise, according to the federal government’s annual National Survey of Drug Use and Health. It showed that in 2009, 7.3 percent of teens (ages 12-17) had used marijuana in the past month, compared to 6.7 percent in 2008. Usage of all illicit drugs (including marijuana) also increased among teens, from 9.3 percent in 2008 to 10 percent in 2009. Among all adults and teens, drug usage also increased, from 8 percent in 2008 to 8.7 percent in 2009. The report said the overall trend was driven largely by an increase in marijuana usage, and it argued that pot is a gateway drug.
Although Prop 19 is being championed as an economic boon for the state, the initiative explicitly says any taxes would go to local governments and not the state. Additionally, its passage could harm the state in another significant way: The Federal Drug Free Workplace Act of 1988 requires that employers who receive $100,000 or more in federal money maintain a drug-free environment. Prop 19 opponents say billions of dollars are at stake.
The nation has roughly 46 million cigarette smokers nationwide and an estimated 15 million recreation marijuana users. Prop 19 opponents say that latter number is bound to increase if the initiative passes.
“Why are there more cigarette users?” Allen asked. “Tobacco is legal. If you legalize marijuana, we’re going to see an increase in that number,” he said, adding there would be big consequences. “People want to say that marijuana is not a gateway drug, but marijuana breaks the seal to addiction. If they do not start in the first place, that seal will stay intact and they won’t have the craving for other drugs. It’s the beginning of breaking the seal to the mind, to the body, and allow the effects of drugs to come in. Don’t smoke marijuana — don’t get started — and you won’t have to worry about a drug addiction problem.”
One of the state’s top pro-family groups, the Campaign for Children and Families, launched a website (www.MarijuanaHarmsFamilies.com) with downloadable church bulletin inserts and an 85-second web ad. Bumper stickers also are available on the website.
Michael Foust is an assistant editor of Baptist Press. Learn about the No on Prop 19 campaign at www.NoOnProposition19.com or www.MarijuanaHarmsFamilies.com.