Three reasons Prop. 19 to legalize marijuana got the thumbs down

The federal government's opposition to legalized marijuana, midterm election voter demographics, and the prospect of regulatory gridlock may have kept California voters from passing Prop. 19.

Paul Sakuma/AP
California Proposition 19, the legalization of marijuana initiative, Kat Murti (r.) regional director of the campaign, gestures during a rally at Sproul Plaza on the University of California, Berkeley campus in Berkeley, Calif., on Nov. 1.

One of the surprises in Tuesday’s election for some was the defeat of California’s Proposition 19 – the initiative that would have allowed for possession and cultivation of small amounts of marijuana for recreational use.

The marijuana rights movement has been steadily expanding nationwide – supported by huge poll shifts of public acceptance of marijuana use – and the proposition had been leading in early polls.

So what happened?

At least three main things, say analysts and those in both the Yes and No camps.

First, on Oct. 15 US Attorney General Eric Holder announced the Obama administration would “vigorously enforce” federal drug laws against people who sell, distribute or grow marijuana for recreational use.

“The single biggest reason was when the US attorney general said they would prosecute users and growers anyway, that pushed those who were on the fence about it into the “no” category,” says Barbara O’Connor, director of the Institute for Study of Politics and Media at California State University, Sacramento.

Second, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger recently signed legislation making relaxing the punishment for possession of an ounce of marijuana. It is now considered an “infraction” (as opposed to a misdemeanor) and many voters may have felt that the less severe punishment was appropriate.

“My sense is that when Schwarzenegger made the penalty for possession the equivalent of a speeding ticket, that took the wind out of the sails of the ‘Yes’ side’s biggest argument – that we are locking up too many people for this and costing law enforcement millions,” says Jessica Levinson, political reform director for the Center for Governmental Studies.

Third, the demographics for legalizing marijuana this election just were not right. Midterm elections favor low turnout and older voters far more than other elections, say analysts, and these not the people who favor changing marijuana laws. Those that were drawn to the polls were drawn for other reasons.

“This year with people’s minds on really more important issues like jobs, the economy, and keeping their homes, Prop. 19 was not a high priority,” says Hal Dash, President and CEO of Cerrell & Accociates, a Democratic strategy consulting firm.

Two other, smaller factors were in play as well say these, said other analysts. Law enforcement opposition to the initiative was nearly universal across the state, and the language of the proposition was confusing to many.

Another barrier: The complex regulatory changes brought on by a jarring shift such as legalizing marijuana. “Beyond the right or wrong of marijuana smoking, the questions got raised on how you regulate it and tax it and certify it,” says Ms. O’Connor. “The Yes side has all the answers to these questions but they never got to the granular level of it for voters.”

The perception that Prop. 19 would be a sure bet for California was wrong, it turned out, because of broad assumptions about the character of California. “As much as people think California is wild and kooky and liberal, that’s not always the case with complicated social issues,” says Ms. Levinson, noting the passage of 2008's Proposition 8, which prohibits same sex marriage. “When it comes to socially controversial, hot-button issues, the default position becomes ‘no.’ ”

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