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Prop 19 was only start of marijuana debate

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (BP)–The votes were still being counted in California on election night when the defeated supporters of legalizing marijuana vowed they would be back in 2012, “stronger than ever.”

Opponents of marijuana legalization may have won by a significant margin, 54-46 percent, but the debate over California Proposition 19 appears to have been just the beginning of what likely will be a budding political and cultural battle that could last for years, if not decades.

The question: Should America legalize marijuana for recreational use? Supporters of legalization had hoped California could set a trend that would spread nationwide. They’ll try again in California in 2012 and could be joined by ballot initiatives in other states, including Washington, Colorado and Nevada.

“The legalization of marijuana is no longer a question of if but a question of when,” Prop 19 supporters said in a statement.

But Wayne Johnson, campaign manager for No on 19, rejects the notion that the momentum is for legalization.

“No trend is inevitable,” he said Nov. 4 during a teleconference with reporters.

Prop 19 would have made California the first state to legalize the growth, sale and recreational use of marijuana. Individuals would have been able to grown it on their property in a lot no bigger than 25 square feet, and local governments would have been able to tax it; the state would not have received any revenue. It still would have been illegal on the federal level — a fact that opponents were quick to note.

Prop 19 lost because a broad coalition of liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans came together to argue the measure was flawed and needed to be rejected. The “no” side even received backing from medicinal marijuana supporters who argued that Prop 19’s passage could make it tougher and even more expensive to obtain pot for medicinal reasons, because, under the initiative’s language, some towns might shut down medicinal marijuana dispensaries.

The editorial board of virtually every major newspaper in the state also opposed Prop 19. Some of those editorials said they might be able to support marijuana legalization in another form but saw too many flaws in Prop 19.

“We had a very diverse coalition,” said Johnson, who acknowledged that supporters of marijuana legalization next time will make some changes to attract more backing. “… In California, you really, truly do need to depend upon coalition politics. You need to be bipartisan. You’ve got to get people who come together on that issue who may not agree on anything else.”

Johnson said there were three arguments that worked for his side:

— The “bad acts by others” argument. The No on 19 side repeatedly argued that the language of the proposal would endanger public safety by allowing people to drive while high and work while high. Prop 19 prohibited the consumption of marijuana by drivers while the car “is being operated” but was silent on the legality of marijuana consumption before a person drives. There is no alcohol-type breathalyzer test for marijuana. Meanwhile, it would have banned pre-employment drug testing for pot. The initiative’s text said employers could take action on employees only if it could be proven an individual’s pot smoking “impairs job performance.” Workers could have smoked on the job.

“Even though California is a very libertarian state … [voters] were concerned that … Prop 19 did not provide protection in the public interaction between citizens,” Johnson said.

— The financial argument. Supporters said passage of Prop 19 would be a money windfall, but once it became clear the state would not receive any money, support began to drop. Also, businesses and schools who received federal funding were faced with the prospect of losing that money because the federal Drug-Free Workplace Act of 1988 requires a drug-free work zone. There also was the question of whether people who sell pot would want to go public by paying taxes.

“As long as this is illegal federally, you cannot license and tax the product in California as long as filing a tax claim is an admission of guilt,” Johnson.

— The editorial board arguments. Because the No on 19 campaign ran virtually no television or radio ads, it had to rely on free media, particularly print media.

“This was one of those cases where the print media, in particular, was very, very important in communicating to voters, and people were getting their information there,” Johnson said. “And we could tell as these different significant events unfolded, it had an impact in how people were reacting to Proposition 19.”

Yet there were three arguments, Johnson said, that were not persuasive with undecided voters: 1) The argument that marijuana is inherently dangerous, 2) the argument that it is a gateway drug and 3) the argument that voters should oppose Prop 19 simply because law enforcement officials also opposed it.

According to exit polls, 52 percent of men and 57 percent of women opposed Prop 19, as did 54 percent of whites, 53 percent of blacks and 55 percent of Latinos. The under-30 age group actually supported it by a margin of 59-41 percent, but the 30-44 bracket was evenly split and the over-44 age groups opposed it by wide margins.

There is a generation gap on the issue, but Johnson doesn’t believe it means young people will definitely support marijuana when they grow older. People can change their minds as they age, he noted.

“It’s not like we just wait around long enough and eventually everybody will have the same opinion,” he said. “… You look at the trends over years and you’ll see that people that were on one side of this issue 10 years ago, now they’re on the other side. Because there are different considerations that come into how we evaluate things.”

A majority of Democrats (56 percent) supported Prop 19, but 70 percent of Republicans and 53 percent of Independents opposed it.

Supporters believe they may have a better chance of passing a marijuana initiative in 2012, a presidential election year when young people are more prone to vote and the California electorate may be more left-leaning. But opponents argued that the California electorate this year closely mirrored a presidential year and was an exception to the national Republican wave, with Democrats easily winning the U.S. Senate race and the governor’s and lieutenant governor’s races. In fact, some political observers believe Democrats were helped in California because it brought out people who voted specifically for pot legalization.

“This was a pretty strong Democrats showing this time around, which is sort of what you would expect in a presidential year, as well,” said No on 19 spokesman Tim Rosales. “I am not sure it would be that much different.”
Michael Foust is an assistant editor of Baptist Press.

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