Marijuana: Go Vote?

Democratic Party State Chairman John Burton seems to have a pretty clear idea about how to increase voter turnout for the upcoming Californian gubernatorial election this November.  In a videotaped conversation with a reporter from the San Francisco Chronicle at the Democratic Party’s state convention in Los Angeles, Burton, 77, referred to the legalization of marijuana as the ultimate weapon to get out the vote.

On Nov. 2, the same day Californians will elect their new governor, citizens will decide whether they wish to pass an initiative that would allow the possession and sale of marijuana, which is already legally sold in California for medicinal purposes.  The initiative, which qualified for ballot on January 28, 2010 with over 700,000 verified signatures, has already sparked copious amounts of controversy, on and off campus.

The most obvious question that arises from Burton’s endorsement of the pot ballot is a simple one: will this initiative actually increase voter turnout among first-time voters?  Not long after the national pot-smokers day 4/20, Stanford students seemed rather skeptical, to say the least.

Young voter turnout has been desperately stagnating nationwide in the last 40 years, and very little seems to indicate California might become an exception.  “A very well known fact is that youth do not vote,” says Stanford Democrats Co-Vice President of Political Affairs John Haskell ’12. “A little known fact is that youth [turnout] increase for Obama was one percent more than four years prior. If Obama could only get a one percent increase, do you think pot will do much better?” he asked.

Very little indicates so. In fact, Californians in favor of Marijuana legalization are nowhere near as numerous as some might expect.  Although support for legalization in the state is significantly higher than the national average, it is all but overwhelming.

According to Reuters, a Field Poll conducted in April 2009 determined that some 56% of Californians surveyed favored making pot legal for social use and taxing the sales proceeds, which is exactly what the initiative would do.  This seems hardly enough for a groundbreaking first-time voter turnout.

On the contrary, the ballot might well mobilize the very opposite political crowd John Burton wished to draw out.  Michael Mulligan ’11 points out to a possible “whiplash effect” the ballot could have, “by drawing out religious fanatics, pompous arrogant elitists, and the rest of the moral majority who only wish to impress their value systems on the rest of the nation regardless of justice.”

In the end, it looks as if the presence of the initiative will not be enough to address the reasons why younger citizens, in California and across the nation, do not vote. “There are so many people who have very little clue of what’s going on and who do not follow the news,” says Scott Bade ’13.

“People do not see the gubernatorial elections as impacting them on a deeper level.  And if people are ambivalent, there’s very little that can bring them to vote,” he said.  In this context, Burton’s endorsement appears like a somewhat simplistic, power-hungry move rather than a legitimate fight for Californians’ individual rights.  Having previously struggled with substance addition, Burton is also an easy target for conservative anti-drug leaders, who often caricature him as a loony old man in need of a fix.

As a result, the critical focus around the ballot might shift away from the very real potential benefits of the initiative in California. According to the California Board of Equalization Study, the state might generate $1.3 billion in tax revenues if the ballot is passed, to which must be added the end of costs and efforts needed to make roughly 80,000 yearly arrests on felony and misdemeanor charges related to marijuana.

In fact, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Law (NORML) estimates profits in spin-off industries could amount to nearly $20 billion, which is also, amusingly, the estimated budget deficit in California as of 2010.

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