California rejected legalizing marijuana. But next time?

California wisely rejected Proposition 19 to fully legalize marijuana. But you can be sure the pro-pot lobby will be back with a new-and-improved initiative or proposed law.

MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images/Newscom
A man walks past a medicinal marijuana dispensary in Los Angeles on Nov. 2. Californians rejected Proposition 19, which would have gone beyond medical marijuana to fully legalize use of the drug in California.

The day after the midterm elections, I called a friend in California to congratulate her on the wisdom of her state's voters. They had defeated Proposition 19, the ballot measure to legalize the "recreational" use of marijuana.

She, too, was pleased. But also worried. She wished even more people had voted against it. The initiative went down, 54 to 46 percent. Had it passed, it would have created the first jurisdiction in the world to fully legalize the use of pot.

By most political standards, that voting spread is a drubbing. But my friend's concern is legitimate. Never underestimate the well-financed and tenacious pro-pot lobby. It is not accepting defeat, and has pronounced legalization a matter of when, not if.

Supporters will try again, if not with another initiative then in the California legislature. They will try to fix flaws in the measure that would have allowed people ages 21 and older to use marijuana and local governments to tax and regulate commercial production and distribution.

The flaws were many. [For a Monitor editorial against Proposition 19, click here.]

A big one was the provision for local taxing and regulation. That made it hard to predict how much revenue the state as a whole could bring in from a pot tax. It also meant that one jurisdiction could outmaneuver all the others by offering the lowest tax around, thereby enticing the bulk of the pot industry to its area. Also, there would be no uniform regulation for a substance that people can become dependent on (30 percent of users either abuse pot or are dependent on it).

If some of these complaints are fixed, might that mean that next time around, voters in California's pot-growing region – the so-called Emerald Triangle – might support legalization? They voted against it this time because many feared that big corporations would take over their local illegal operations. Or that plunging prices would hollow out their business.

Critics also pointed out that under the measure, people could smoke a joint just before driving. Employers could face legal action for firing workers for pot use. And speaking of legal action, the federal government said it would consider suing to overturn the measure if it passed because marijuana is illegal under federal law.

"There were so many serious issues with this initiative that you didn't even have to get to the philosophical question of whether marijuana should be legalized or not," said police lobbyist John Lovell, in a California newspaper, the Sacramento Bee.

But the basic question is exactly what needs to be addressed, because as pot supporters go about perfecting a law or a ballot initiative, the more practical complaints will drop away.

The strongest defense left standing will be the fundamental issue of legalization as a societal ill. That is a powerful defense: Pot use costs individuals – in health, alertness, productivity, safety, and relationships. By extension, that costs society.

"The notion that we are advancing the social good by making it easier for people to get high is a lunatic notion,” Mr. Lovell said earlier this year.

There's nothing old-fashioned or out-of-touch about this argument. It must be used, and vigorously. Otherwise, when Prop. 19 next appears, in whatever form, the margin of opposition is likely to erode, or disappear completely.

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