California Rejects Legal Marijuana, But For How Long?

by Patrick Murray

Buried amongst the ruins of the Democratic Party last week was the unfortunate defeat of California’s Proposition 19, a ballot measure that would have made California the first state to legalize the use and cultivation of marijuana for recreational purposes. While the measure initially saw strong support in the polls, opposition grew throughout October, with voters ultimately deciding against it 54-46. Similarly, voters rejected programs to either allow or increase access to medical marijuana in Oregon, South Dakota, and Arizona.

This loss is undoubtedly a blow to marijuana advocates. Yet seen against the backdrop of almost a century of strict prohibition, the mere fact that such a measure was even considered can be interpreted as an enormous achievement. To give a sense of the current climate, recreational use is illegal in all fifty states. Both possession and cultivation carry mandatory minimum sentences at the federal level, with the latter potentially leading to life in prison. Marijuana is currently classified by the DEA as a Schedule I substance, meaning it ranks among what the DEA considers the most dangerous substances in America. Almost 900,000 individuals were arrested on marijuana-related charges in 2009, with the DEA seizing over 600,000 kilograms of the drug.

Amidst all this, California was prepared to adopt a policy directly at odds with the rest of the country and the Department of Justice (who stated that they would continue to prosecute marijuana possession in California regardless of California’s decision).  It is a landmark movement and one that reflects our nation’s rapidly changing views on marijuana and the value of prohibition.

The United States has come a long way since the days of Reefer Madness and scare stories of crazed, pot-addled hippies. While almost 80% of Americans supported prohibition in 1970, the number has dropped rapidly in recent decades, currently standing at only 54%. Increasingly prominent voices, including former Surgeon General Jocelyn Elders, have called for legalization, pointing out that the drug is no more harmful that legal drugs such as alcohol and tobacco. Economists have also entered the discussion, suggesting that legalization could lead to an increase in tax revenues as well as a reduction in spending for an increasingly costly and largely ineffective drug war.

This is on top of a growing movement across the country to permit the use of medical marijuana. Fifteen states and the District of Columbia allow the use of the drug with permission from a physician. While such programs have seen resistance at the federal level in the past, most notably in the form of federal raids on dispensaries during the second Bush Administration, they have grown in acceptance to the point where the Obama Administration has stated that they will let the programs be.

So what caused the backlash seen in this year’s election? Perhaps it is due to the fact that seniors, who traditionally support prohibition at higher rates than other demographics, saw a rather large turnout in last Tuesday’s elections. Others could include the high enthusiasm among conservative voters, who also tend to support prohibition. Though that maybe changing as well. This election saw high-profile Republican candidates such as Rand Paul give mild (though fleeting) support for medical marijuana as part of a growing feeling of Libertarianism in the Republican Party. Even Proposition 19 found support among traditionally conservative-leaning groups such as former law enforcement officials, who feel that legalization would weaken Mexican drug cartels who use profits from illicit marijuana sales to support their activities.

In the end, despite this year’s setbacks, all trends likely point toward an end to marijuana prohibition, though when that will occur is anyone’s guess. In the meantime, California smokers will have to continue to wait. Or get a note from their doctor.

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