Why Prop 19 Went Up in Smoke

This California election, perhaps no other proposition on the ballot generated as much interest on Stanford’s campus as did Proposition 19, California’s biggest chance at a ”marijuana legalization” experiment in years. The failure of the California electorate to pass this landmark initiative lends itself to critical analysis, particularly because voters aged 18-29 were overwhelmingly in favor of legalization.

When performing an autopsy on this unsuccessful ballot initiative, we find that Proposition 19 failed in three respects. First, it did not do a good enough job of alleviating the negative impressions that the electorate associated with marijuana. Second, it alienated both pro-legalization and anti-legalization movements. Third, it failed, remarkably, to construct a bulletproof case for the long-term benefits of legalizing marijuana.

While California voters on average are more socially liberal than the general American electorate, the California vote was in line with a pre-election Gallup survey that found 46 percent of Americans favoring legalization, suggesting that Proposition 19 energized its opposition without firing up its supporters. As the Marijuana Policy Project points out, while long-term trends are in the legalization movement’s favor—as are public perceptions of marijuana users—Election Day’s results indicate that voters still view marijuana as a cultural aberration, not for “medical users, middle-class parents, or non-rebellious youth.”

Proposition 19, at least in theory, had a relatively easy path to victory—all it had to do was unite California’s plentiful supply of libertarian and progressive interests behind it, use conservative and liberal arguments to create a more positive image of marijuana, avoid ideological dissension among its potential supporters, and generally come off as reasonable. In other words, it was a matter of little constructive action combined with a few defensive moves where necessary. People who support more politically problematic issues dream about a path to victory this obvious.
So what went wrong?

Several answers present themselves, but they all pale in comparison to the fact that Proposition 19’s supporters seemed to “know” only one thing about their own campaign—that their opponents were knuckle-dragging morons. Movements all end up looking gallant in their own eyes, and most believe that those opposing them are allied with the forces of darkness. However, the sheer stridence of the pro-Proposition 19 campaign was particularly off-putting. One of the most reckless things about this campaign was that anyone who opposed instant legalization of marijuana was regarded as a public enemy—unserious and not worthy of persuasion.

The opposition, of course, was more nuanced. Proposition 19 had many, many ideological problems successfully uniting opposition from both pro-legalization and anti-legalization forces: many pro-drug advocates came out against it for being a tepid, incremental approach and doing little to solve actual problems with the marijuana industry today. Moreover, its libertarian supporters had good reason to be wary of provisions in the bill that regulated whether employees could be fired for partaking of the drug, and they were surely not comforted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s active stance against the drug. A stronger, more serious campaign would have seen these arguments as teachable moments, carefully, thoughtfully, seriously persuading the electorate to understand what exactly was at stake.

Instead, those who even raised these issues were shouted down shrilly by mildly hysterical diatribes describing the way Californians who used marijuana are treated, and the evil nature of the special interests who would benefit if the bill were not passed. They were told that their teenage children would be stamped with the “Mark of Cain” by the criminal justice system, that the current regime was tantamount to slavery, that any concern with Proposition 19 marked them as prohibitionist loons and that actually, marijuana is not such a big deal. Hopefully marijuana use does register as a “big deal” when you are fighting to legalize it.

Not only did the Proposition 19 campaign people fail to rebut the case against Proposition 19, but they also failed to construct the case for Proposition 19. Those arguing for legalization didn’t seem to understand or agree on exactly what the greatest benefit of legalization would be. Would it be the increased revenue that would flow from the flourishing, newly legal marijuana industry that would sprout in California? If so, would that mean that California would have a marijuana industry, and wouldn’t that increase usage, which the campaign insisted would not be an issue?

These were the questions the campaign for Proposition 19 should have anticipated and answered confidently, rather than going as far as they did to avoid them. In short, lack of discipline and lack of self-critique caused the noble vision of Proposition 19 to go up in smoke.

Vasant Ramachandran ’11 is majoring in Electrical Engineering. He can be reached at vasantr AT stanford DOT edu.

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