Will California Legalize Pot?
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Today, at least a third of Americans say they've tried smoking weed. Is it possible that after half a century of increasingly mainstreamed pot use the public is ready for marijuana to be legal? We may soon find out.
California has long been on the front lines of marijuana policy. In 1996, it became the first state to legalize medical cannabis. This year, the Tax Cannabis initiative -- now officially baptized Proposition 19 -- may very well be the best chance any state has ever had at legalizing the consumption, possession and cultivation of marijuana for anyone over 21.
Drug reformers are particularly excited about Prop. 19's prospects because the pot reform stars seem to be as aligned as ever here. Consider the current state of marijuana in California. For one, medical cannabis has normalized the idea of pot as a legitimate industry to many of the state's residents. At least 300,000 and as many as 400,000 Californians are card-carrying medical marijuana patients, and the medical pot industry brings in around $100 million in sales tax revenue each year, according to Americans for Safe Access.
Add to this the fact that at least 3.3 million Californians consume cannabis each year, a figure culled from a presumably low-ball federal estimate, meaning the actual incidence rate may be much higher. In other words, at least one in 10 Californians uses pot every year. Plus, 38 percent of Californians say they have tried pot at least once in their lifetimes.
Next, tie the widespread use of this mild substance -- which has proven to be less harmful than alcohol and cigarettes -- to the growing slice of law enforcement resources that are dedicated to fighting non-violent crimes associated with marijuana. Since 2005, marijuana arrests have increased nearly 30 percent, totaling 78,000 in 2008, according to figures from the state's Office of the Attorney General. Of those arrests, four out of five were for simple possession. Not surprisingly, this overzealous drug war disproportionately affects minorities and young people.
All of this in the face of the state's massive debt -- $19 billion for the month-old fiscal year -- which is closing schools, laying off police officers, and shutting down key public services while cash-strapped taxpayers foot the bill for a failed, senseless drug policy. With little money in state and local municipalities' coffers, criminalizing marijuana seems a senseless waste of the state's largest cash crop. In all, marijuana prohibition is both an economic and a social issue -- and Prop. 19 hopes to convince California voters that Nov. 2 is the time to end it.
The midterm elections are just over three months away, and Prop. 19 is seen by many observers as one of the ballot items most likely to galvanize voters. As the people behind Prop. 19 prepare to launch their ground campaign in earnest, it's clear the initiative will be under a magnifying glass every step of the way.
The question on everyone's mind is: How do they win?
The reality of the matter is that Prop. 19 has the deck stacked against it simply because there is no precedent for a voting public of a state to endorse removing all civil and criminal penalties associated with adult marijuana use. All preceding efforts have met sad ends: A 1972 measure also called Prop. 19 failed in California; more recently, attempts in Alaska, Colorado and Nevada were also rejected. In the face of decades of federal and state prohibition, it is still much easier to vote no than yes, even in the face of convincing arguments to do otherwise.