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Up In Smoke: Cannabis Initiative Post Mortem

I spent Election Day at Prop 19 Headquarters in Oak­land, California, and witnessed the final, tumultuous hours of the campaign to legalize marijuana. Not legalize it once and for all. To be precise, legalize possession of one ounce or less by a person over the age of 21, and cultivation in a 25-square-foot area.

Fifty four percent of California voters cast ballots against 19 and 46% of the voters cast ballots for it. It’s hard to argue with those percentages and, if you believe that the number of votes cast for and against is the cru­cial factor, than 19 lost.

That’s what big media is saying and that’s what law enforcers are also saying. The supporters of 19 have been saying that 19 won, that the 3,350,000 or so people who voted for it shows that marijuana is here to stay, and that sooner or later marijuana will be legalized.

“Demographics, economics and principle all favor the ultimate demise of marijuana prohibition,” Ethan Nadelmann, the founder and executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, said soon after the votes were counted. He added, “Marijuana isn't going to legalize itself, but 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.”

Nadelmann is absolutely right when he says that marijuana won’t legalize itself. Indeed, it will take inge­nuity, organization, and new strategies to persuade some of the nearly 4 million people who voted against 19 to change their minds.

In the 1960s, momentum to legalize pot built like never before, and hippies predicted that it would be legalized very soon. But that didn’t happen. The same could happen again, unless there are profound changes in strategy by the pro-legalization movement.

By and large, law enforcers want marijuana to remain illegal. By and large, commercial marijuana growers, and their friends and neighbors in California, want it to remain illegal too. The police don’t want to lose their funding and their jobs; the growers don’t want a drop in the price of pot and a dent in their pocketbooks.

Prop 19 was poorly written; even advocates for legali­zation pointed to its inconsistencies, legalese, and confused wording. Prop 19 left it up to individual coun­ties in California to decide whether to implement the measure. Citizens in one county would be able to have an ounce or less if they were 21 years of age or older, while citizens in an adjacent county would not have the same legal protections. That was a recipe for disaster.

Shortly before Election Day, former Mexican Presi­dent Vicente Fox commented on 19 in a radio interview. “How great it would be for California to set this exam­ple,” he said. “May God let it pass. The other US states will have to follow step.” His sentiments were widely appreciated in the movement to end the war on mari­juana.

All around the world, the citizens of the world look to California to set a positive example, and California did set the example for medical marijuana, and 13 other states followed its lead. It might not be helpful, however, to look to California to lead the way again. Other states, such as Colorado, have implemented medical marijuana in cleaner, clearer ways than California.

American puritanism, the American work ethic, and the American suspicion of pleasure and joy also contrib­uted to the Prohibition of marijuana. Millions of Califor­nians don’t like the idea of their fellow citizens smoking pot at parties, driving on pot, arriving at work stoned, having sex stoned, and eating stoned. To make marijuana legal it will also mean eroding American puritanism — no easy feat.

What seems especially noteworthy of the Prop 19 campaign is that many in law enforcement came out in favor of legalization. They went against the tide of law enforcers who think of marijuana as the drug of choice of the hippies, and who are still fighting the battles of the 1960s.

Meanwhile, in the wake of the defeat of 19, very lit­tle seems to have changed in California in the marijuana world. Stoners, heads, and medical marijuana patients are rolling joints and smoking them. Marijuana growers are planting seeds; dispensaries are selling pot. Doctors are recommending marijuana to their patients.

Prop 19 did profoundly change attitudes, and yet now that the election is over it’s as though 19 never hap­pened. After so much time and effort, it’s hard to believe. Prop 19 might be a foundation to build upon, and yet given the volatile political scene and political amnesia, it seems likely that the next time a pro-mari­juana measure comes along, activists will have to start all over again with a clean slate.

That might not be a bad idea. ¥¥

(Jonah Raskin is the author of Field Days: A Year of Farming, Eating and Drinking Wine in California and a professor at Sonoma State University.)

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