As the smoke clears

Another look at the defeat of California's decriminalization referendum

When it comes to analyzing voters' rejection last week of California's marijuana legalization measure, the question is one of perception: Is the joint half-smoked, or is there a half remaining yet to burn?

Given this paper's marathon editorial calling for an end to the drug war — especially the war on marijuana dealers and smokers — we think a little postmortem of the California Prop. 19 vote is in order. (To get another take on the outcome, check out this week's Higher Ground column by John Sinclair.)

Looked at one way, it was a resounding defeat. As the Christian Science Monitor reported, "The controversial measure not only lost, but it lost by a wide margin across most of the state." When all the ballots were counted, the "no" side had achieved a 54-46 victory.

Among the places where the measure lost was the Emerald Triangle region of Northern California, an area where, as the San Francisco Chronicle pointed out, marijuana is the "biggest economic engine," and the potential to market the region as the "Napa Valley of pot" could be a real economic boon. The thinking is that growers there feared losing significant income because of a possibly huge drop in prices if the measure had passed.

From where we sit, the fact that criminals are worried about the negative impact passage of a reform measure would have on business is a strong argument in favor of reform. When criminals are in favor of retaining an existing law that targets them, you have to believe that law ain't exactly working.

There are other reasons to believe that, for those who favor legalization, there's cause to be optimistic about the direction things are headed in. For starters, there's the huge shift in public sentiment that has already occurred. The last time Californians voted on a pot legalization measure was back in 1972, when only 33.5 percent of the voters were in favor. Given that margin of defeat, looking at closing the 5 percent gap that existed after votes were counted last week doesn't seem at all insurmountable.

That's even truer when you consider that, according to one recent poll, about 70 percent of people 30 and under favor legalization. Voter turnout among that age group was pitiful last week. But if that demographic shows up in force in 2012, the way they did in 2008, it could be a whole different story. According to several reports, backers of the measure — which would have allowed adults to possess up to an ounce, and to grow small plots of weed for personal consumption — are already anticipating a comeback attempt two years from now.

Among other things, the way opponents waged this battle shows how far the issue has come. News stories indicate that opponents realized early on that Reefer Madness-style scare tactics held little sway over an electorate that has a fairly realistic view of pot and its potential dangers. As a result, opponents zeroed in on flaws in the law itself, rather than an outright attack on marijuana in general.

That means a better-crafted law could be especially difficult to defeat.

Prop. 19 had other hurdles to overcome as well. Shortly before the election, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a law reducing the penalty for simple marijuana possession from a misdemeanor to the equivalent of a traffic ticket, with a $100 fine.

That had to take some steam out of the momentum to legalize. And, as one writer pointed out, with a loosely written medical marijuana law already in place, most everyone seriously interested in not getting busted for smoking has already found a way to do so by getting an easily obtained patient card.

Although Prop. 19 would have allowed local municipalities and counties the authority to tax and regulate distribution outlets, the fact that a hodgepodge of local ordinances would have resulted was something that confused many voters, and thus contributed to the no vote.

Also cited as significant was U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder's pronouncement weeks before the election that the federal Department of Justice would vigorously pursue all marijuana scofflaws even if the state law were to pass.

That's disappointing coming from an administration that, if nothing else, should seem to understand the idea of philosophical consistency. And since the administration has already promised not to go after medical marijuana users in states where sick people have been granted the liberty to smoke, you would think that Barack Obama and crew would follow the same path of logic and accede to the desires of voters in any state that chooses to legalize weed in general.

What will be interesting to see in the months to come isn't whether the legalization forces in California are ready to give voters a re-roll, so to speak. That's seems pretty much a given. What we want to know is whether, given the heavy-handed approach Michigan Attorney General-elect Bill Schuette is likely to take, if the activists in this state will find a way to make a push toward overall legalization here.

News Hits is edited by Curt Guyette. Contact the column at 313-202-8004 or [email protected].

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