Drugs

With Majorities Supporting CA's Marijuana Legalization Initiative, Victory Is in Grasp

Less than six months from election day, the CA initiative to legalize marijuana has the support of half the voters, according to two polls.

According to two different polls released last Wednesday, the Tax Cannabis California marijuana legalization initiative is ahead but not by much, making the path to victory in November a rough one. Both polls show the initiative winning, but just barely, and both polls show the initiative hovering around 50% support. On the other hand, polling also shows remarkably high support for the concept of marijuana legalization in some form -- especially when the word legalization is not used.

In an internal campaign poll, when voters read either the ballot measure's title or the attorney general's summary of it -- all voters will see when they cast their votes -- the initiative garners 51% and 52%, respectively, with opposition at 40%. In a Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) poll, 49% approved of the initiative, while 48% opposed it.

The standard wisdom among initiative veterans is that campaigns should begin with support around 60%. They argue that once a campaign begins, opponents will find ways to shave off percentage points, and if you are starting with only half the voters on your side, losing any support means you lose.

With such a tight margin, expect both proponents and opponents to be energized in the six months between now and the November vote. Initiative organizers have to be concerned with the narrowness of their lead, especially given that attacks on the whole notion of pot legalization in general and on specific provisions of the initiative will only mount between now and then.

The initiative would tax and regulate marijuana much the way alcohol is now. It would legalize the possession of up to one ounce of marijuana and allowing the growing of a 25-square-foot garden throughout the state, but would give counties and municipalities the local option of whether to allow taxed, regulated marijuana sales or not.

Additional findings from both polls provide further detail on where the initiative does -- and does not -- have support, and offer hints of where the campaign is going to have its work cut out for it. Among the PPIC poll's other findings:

  • Majorities of Democrats (56%) and independents (55%) favor legalization. Thirty-four percent of Republicans are in favor.
  • Most San Francisco Bay Area residents (56%) are in favor. Residents in other regions are either divided or opposed.
  • Most Latinos (62%) oppose legalization. A majority of whites (56%) are in favor.
  • Men (54%) are more likely to be in favor. Less than half (42%) of women favor legalization.
  • Support for legalization decreases with age. 56 percent of adults aged 18-34 are in favor, compared with 42 percent aged 55 and older.

The additional findings from the initiative's internal poll are the surprising ones:

  • 76% say marijuana is already being used in the state and ought be regulated.
  • 74% say marijuana ought be regulated like tobacco and alcohol.
  • 69% say the initiative will bring the state needed revenue.
  • 61% say marijuana is easier for minors to obtain than alcohol.
  • 60% say it will save the state money.
  • 57% say it will put police priorities where they belong.

These number will provide the initiative campaign with a number of promising avenues of attack in the coming months, but they also speak to the disconnect between attitudes favorable to marijuana legalization in the abstract and actually voting for a concrete measure. To win, the campaign is going to have to close that gap, convincing voters that the initiative will do what voters themselves suggest they want.

"This is further evidence that voters remain eager to replace a failed policy with a more honest, commonsense solution that will control and tax marijuana like alcohol and cigarettes, generate critically needed revenue, and reduce crime by putting police resources where they belong, while ending the black market," campaign spokesman Dan Newman told the Chronicle.

"The numbers reflect what I've said all along -- it's going to be a tough battle," said Dale Gieringer, head of California NORML. "It's going to take a lot of work to maintain a lead. There is a tendency for voters to vote no on initiatives, and this is a nasty year with a nasty turnout of angry right-wingers not inclined to support these things. It's also an off-year, when students and progressives are less likely to vote."

"Depending on how Richard Lee is doing building a campaign organization, building support, and raising funds, this has a real chance," said long-time drug reformer Eric Sterling. "It would have a profound impact if it wins. It will have extremely important political consequences. It upsets the international treaties, it completely changes what the US can say to its foreign partners about drug policy," he argued, making the case for getting behind the initiative.

"Anyone who works in drug policy and underestimates the long-term impact of a victory makes a mistake," Sterling said. "People should really think about committing themselves to making monthly contributions by credit card and encouraging everyone they know to get on the list. This is really worth it. If activists all around the country committed themselves to raising some money for the campaign and started having bake sales and pot lucks and the like, that pool of money could be like the kind of contributions that brought Obama an electoral victory. It is certainly doable."

Democrats would be well-advised to embrace the campaign, said Sterling. "With the polling showing that Democrats and young people support this, it seems to me that the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee interested in getting Sen. Boxer reelected and the National Democratic Governor's Association interested in getting a Democrat elected governor and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee would be interested in issues that appeal to Democrats and young people. They need to mobilize some fraction of the electorate that voted for Obama two years ago," he argued. "If they don't, they won't have the turnout and the success they seek."

It would be good politics for Democrats, Sterling said. "They need to encourage their candidates to support it when they can and think about their strategies to tamp down the opposition. They can make the necessary warnings that they're not pro-drug, but trying to regulate it and protect children and bring revenue into the public coffers."

But Democrats aren't known for their backbone on this issue, said Gieringer. "Democrats should like this on the ballot because it encourages turnout by young Democratic and liberal voters, so there is a lot of support in Democratic quarters for that reason," Gieringer said. "But the Democratic Party of California has never even endorsed medical marijuana; they are scared of the drug issue and scared of the crime issue. Anti-crime measures do very well here, and a lot of Democratic elected officials, like a lot of the public, regard the initiative as a 'pro-crime' measure," he pointed out.

The organized opposition, consisting of law enforcement groups, anti-drug community groups, and Mothers Against Drunk Driving coalesced into an anti-initiative coalition called Public Safety First, was quick to go on the attack. "These numbers certainly suggest a great deal of voter skepticism out there," noted group spokesman Tim Rosales in a Wednesday news release. "This is before voters have received any information about this measure's truly numerous flaws."

Citing the initiative's poll findings that large majorities want pot regulated like alcohol and tobacco and that the initiative would bring in needed revenue, Rosales continued his broadside, previewing opposition arguments likely to be fined honed by November. "Those numbers basically show that this measure cannot pass, once voters know what it does and doesn't do," said Rosales. "This measure doesn't regulate marijuana, it does just the opposite. Furthermore, the initiative specifically forbids the state to tax marijuana, so they are basically giving voters a huge reason to vote 'No.'"

In fact, the measure gives cities and counties the option of taxing and regulating marijuana sales. While leaving taxation and regulation to local authorities will not help the state government address its perpetual budget crisis, it will help cash-strapped local governments who desperately need increased revenues to avoid service cuts and lay-offs.

That the opposition is organized and ready to put up a fight is clear. What is less clear is the support the initiative will receive from California's large and multi-faceted marijuana industry. "Marijuana users are overwhelmingly in favor of the initiative, but most of the money in the marijuana lobby at the moment is in medical marijuana, and those folks are happy with things as they are and are not exactly jumping to open up competition like this. And some growers are seriously worried, so there are important parts of the movement that are not necessarily excited," the veteran California activist said.

We're less than six months from Election Day. Victory is in grasp, but so is defeat. These next few months are going to be very interesting indeed.

Read more of Phillip S. Smith's work at the Drug War Chronicle.