This article, recently published on Alternet, examines one possible factor why Proposition 19, the proposal to legalize pot for personal consumption and cultivation, lost in California in November 2010.
Sifting through the failure of Proposition 19, supporters of legalizing marijuana can point to many factors for why it lost 54% to 46%: The fact that young voters, who reportedly supported legalization by a 40 percent margin, did not stampede to the polls; U.S.Attorney General Eric Holder’s threat to go after “individuals and organizations that possess, manufacture or distribute marijuana for recreational use, even if such activities are permitted under state law;” and California’s decriminalization, just one month before the vote, of possessing up to one ounce of weed.
Add to that the successful tarring of Prop 19 as a poorly worded measure that was vague on regulation and opponents hysterically warning of “potheads on the road” mowing down hundreds of innocents, and it’s easy to see why the measure fell short.
No doubt new legalization measures will be on the ballot in the future, whether in California or other Western states where acceptance of recreational usage is high. So it’s worth considering another reason that may have doomed Prop 19: cultural factors.
Last summer, on an extended visit to Los Angeles, I concluded that Proposition 19 was doomed. Hanging out in neighborhoods near Griffith Park, such as Silver Lake, Los Feliz and Hollywood, I talked to precisely the people one would expect would vote for legalization, but who indicated they would vote against it. (This is the part of the city wherescores of dispensaries were shut down a few months ago.)
Theirs is a familiar demographic: people in their 30s and 40s, starting homeowners, many with young children, progressive across the board – pro-choice, antiwar, environmentally conscious, supporters of unions and rights for undocumented immigrants, against charter schools, tolerant and socially liberal. In theory, they even supported legalization. All used to smoke pot, some still did. Call them the “Marijuana Moms and Dads.”
Yet why would they all find Proposition 19 unappealing? Because of the actually existing legalization.
As a New Yorker, I found it remarkable to see a thriving marijuana economy – the dispensaries, cafes, growing-supply stores, head shops, “universities,” campaign offices and the like. Walking down one short block with at least five businesses devoted to pot – from growing to buying to consuming – it seemed unreal and normal, libratory and decadent. And this is precisely what bothered them: the visibility of an economy that is, frankly, seedy.
In essence, Proposition 19 may have been a victim of the success of the legalization movement. The incremental strategy has chalked up many victories since the passage ofCompassionate Usage Act of 1996 (“medical marijuana”). Decriminalization was a big win, for one, but it may have blunted the argument that legalization was needed to remedy unfair and racially biased sentencing.
More important, for many, there has been enough or perhaps even a bit too much legalization for their liking. The touted benefits of broad legalization – such as an infusion of tax money for a bankrupt state – were not worth the perceived downsides of an open-air pot culture.
Marijuana is already a big business that employs tens of thousands of people throughout California, particularly in the lush Emerald Triangle, and probably pumps billions of dollars into the state economy. But do you really want your neighborhood turned into little Amsterdam, even if you toke up on the weekend?
For the Marijuana Moms and Dads I encountered, their thinking boiled down to, “I can get weed for myself and smoke it at home after the kids are in bed without a hassle, so why do I want to worry that teenagers, slackers and burnouts will be smoking up in my neighborhood as I go for a stroll with my family?” I think many of them also imagined legalization could mean having to run a gauntlet of pot cafes full of stoned tourists just to buy groceries. In addition, they were concerned about the impact that a robust marijuana economy would have on their home value.
Legalization supporters might grumble about these social and cultural factors, and dismiss such people as yuppies or social conservatives, but this is far from the truth. To win future battles, they have to gain the support of these people, who are natural allies.
It’s completely conceivable that getting high in the open could follow from Prop 19. Yes, the measure banned usage in public places, but the ban on public drinking doesn’t stop the guy on the corner from chugging booze out of a paper bag. In pre-Giuliani New York, the NYPD did not arrest drug users, only sellers, and scrums of people smoking pot openly was a common sight in neighborhoods like the Lower East Side.
Back then, in New York, many parents of small children – even some potheads – were unhappy about open drug use (though it was not just pot smoking they were upset about, it was also the rampant drinking, and heroin and crack use). No matter how open-minded you are as a parent, you want to control how your child encounters such things. For example, even if you talk to your children openly about sex, that doesn’t mean you want them to see people screwing in public.
The legalization movement needs to figure out how to address the Marijuana Moms and Dads’ apprehensions while appealing to their libertarian attitudes and progressive politics. A significant slice of the population, their support – or opposition – could make the difference between victory or defeat in the close-fought battles over legalization to come.