Could Latinos Snuff Out Pot Legalization?

The 2015 High Times Cannabis Cup
The 2015 High Times Cannabis Cup
Timothy Norris/L.A. Weekly

Latinos have been depicted as having an intimate and historic relationship with marijuana. Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa and his men are said to have smoked pot and brought it with them when they crossed the border, helping to inspire American prohibition early last century. The 1978 film Up in Smoke, featuring Cheech Marin, made cannabis appear to be an everyday elixir for Mexican-Americans and hippies alike.

But the truth about Latinos and weed is a little more complex.

Older and immigrant Latinos tend to be more socially conservative, particularly when it comes to drug use. The Public Policy Institute of California said last year that a majority of Latinos are opposed to full legalization for pot.

That's why those who are allied against the Adult Use of Marijuana Act, or Proposition 64 (the recreational marijuana initiative slated for November's ballot in California), are counting on Latino voters to help them defeat it.

"Latinos have some real concerns about this initiative," says Tim Rosales, spokesman for the No on 64 campaign. "I think the Latino community and the African-American community have traditionally been opposed to the expansion of nonmedical marijuana."

Backers of the no side believe that a tsunami of Latinos registering to vote in order to oppose Donald Trump's presidential bid will help lead them to victory. Latinos now are the largest ethnic or racial group in the Golden State.

"You have energized Latino voters coming out to the polls," says Kevin Sabet, president-CEO of prominent anti-legalization group Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM). "I think Latinos are absolutely key."

Opponents say that a culture of disdain for marijuaneros, tokers who are seen as unproductive members of the community, will pair well with Latinos' tendency to support law-and-order issues and their mixed if not negative experience with medical marijuana shops in their communities.

But the latest PPIC poll, released in May, now has a slight majority of likely Latino voters — 54 percent — saying yes to the idea of legalization. The same poll found that fewer likely Latino voters (16 percent) than white ones (20 percent) admit that they've tried pot.

AUMA would legalize holding up to an ounce of pot for those 21 and older. It also would tax sales at a rate of 15 percent and police cannabis in a way that's similar to alcohol regulation.

The Yes on 64 campaign is ready to fight tooth-and-nail for the Latino vote. And it believes a higher Latino turnout is good for it, because higher turnouts also bring out younger, more liberal votes.

"If that's what they're trying to hang their hat on, then that bodes very well for us," campaign spokesman Michael Bustamante says when asked about the other side targeting Latinos. "The differentiating characteristic is that you will see more millennials and under-40 Latinos turn out, which speaks well for a yes vote."

One of the no campaign's most intriguing arguments is that medical marijuana hasn't treated the Latino community well. Latinos aren't often owners of medical dispensaries, opponents argue. And some proponents admit they have an uphill battle with Latino voters. 

Armando Gudino, the policy manager for the Drug Policy Alliance in California, says that of 40 Latino policy organizations he's worked with in the Golden State, only about half have committed to supporting Proposition 64.

"Legalization is a third rail of Latino politics," he says. "Some elected officials are afraid to support it because their Latino constituents will vote against them."

The Yes on 64 campaign plans to set aside some of the cash it gets — so far more than $3.5 million has been raised — to target the Latino community with television advertising, representatives say.

"The yes campaign has realized — they're still learning  — that yes, we're going to have to address the Latino community to win," Gudino says.

UPDATE at 4:15 p.m. Tuesday, July 5, 2016: This story has been changed to reflect a new proposition number for the Adult Use of Marijuana Act. It's 64, not 63.


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