California’s ballot initiative to make marijuana legal, Proposition 19, didn’t win a majority of votes – but it represents an extraordinary victory for the broader movement to end marijuana prohibition. Momentum is building like never before among Americans across the political spectrum who think it’s time to take marijuana out of the closet and out of the criminal justice system.
Prop. 19 won 4.6 million votes, or 46.5 percent – more than Meg Whitman or Carly Fiorina, the wealthy Republican candidates for governor and senator.
The debate is shifting from whether marijuana should be legalized to how. Public opinion polls in California consistently reveal that a majority of the state’s citizens favor legalizing marijuana – including, astoundingly, 31 percent of those who voted “no” on Prop. 19.
Prop. 19 was the brainchild of Richard Lee, the Oakland-based medical marijuana activist and entrepreneur who founded Oaksterdam University and who funded the efforts to put it on the ballot.
The initiative forged a new coalition in support of making marijuana legal. Civil rights organizations, such as the California chapter of the NAACP, the William C. Velazquez Institute, the National Black Police Association, and the National Latino Officers Association endorsed it. So did the Service Employees International Union of California, the largest union in the state,
as well as a handful of other unions.
Prop. 19 can even claim one concrete victory: Just weeks before the election, Governor Schwarzenegger signed into law a bill introduced by longtime Drug Policy Alliance ally, State Senator Mark Leno, to reduce the penalty for marijuana possession from a misdemeanor to a non-arrestable infraction, like a traffic ticket. That’s no small matter in a state where arrests for marijuana possession totaled 61,000 in 2009 – roughly triple the number in 1990. It’s widely understood that the principal reason the governor signed the bill was to undermine one of the key arguments in favor of Prop. 19.
Asked what would bring out young, first-time Barack Obama voters again, the chairman of the California Democratic Party, John Burton, responded with one word: “Pot.” Young people did in fact vote in greater numbers in California than elsewhere – although not as much as we had hoped. If they turn out in 2012 as they did in 2008, a marijuana legalization initiative stands an excellent chance of winning. Both major parties have no choice but to pay more attention than they ever have before.