In the end Proposition 19, which lost Tuesday, was more than a pipe dream. A long-shot campaign by a one-man band — a pot-shop owner from Oakland — turned into a bona fide movement to reconsider America's long-standing marijuana prohibition.
It made national headlines, won support from unions, civil rights groups and even some law enforcement organizations, and, supporters say, took one giant step toward a full-on legalization effort that will likely return to California in 2012.
Stephen Gutwillig, state director of the pro-legalization Drug Policy Alliance, said it was a respectable loss.
"It validates the analysis that prop. 19 has permanently impacted the national debate and moved marijuana legalization into the mainstream of American politics," he said. "We came up short tonight but it's clear it's an issue people take seriously."
Yeah, Prop. 19 came up short and burned out a few weeks before the election. Polls in the summer that had suggested enough support to pass the thing had faded by fall.
But the euphoria it created, backers say, will linger.
"On the 'yes' side there wasn't a consensus that this was the year," says Gutwillig.
The movement may be even stronger for that. "Regardless of the outcome, it clearly has been an enormously valuable exercise, because Prop. 19 has moved the debate forward nationally and forged an unprecedented reform coalition," Gutwillig says. "We cannot understate the significance of bringing mainstream civil rights organizations and labor unions to this cause for the first time."
Unlikely factions supporting the initiative, which would have allowed Californians 21 and older to possess up to one ounce of pot, included the state's largest labor group, the Service Employees International Union, the California NAACP and the police group the National Latino Officers Association.
But it often appeared as though defiantly independent Richard Lee, the Oakland medical marijuana–dispensary entrepreneur who launched Proposition 19 single-handedly by bankrolling a petition drive, was riding solo.
Just one week before the November 2 election, the first significant contributions other than his own were made to Proposition 19: Billionaire George Soros made a last-minute, $1 million bet on the measure and suddenly the campaign could buy a front-page, wraparound, full-color ad in the Los Angeles Times.
Too little, too late?
"The big problem in any campaign is getting the troops out," says attorney Bruce Margolin, L.A. director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), and the subject of L.A. Weekly cover story "Proposition 19 Dreams of Legal Weed." "It takes money and time. There wasn’t much here in this particular campaign."
A number of well-organized forces for cannabis decriminalization appeared to stay on the sidelines until late in the game. Many didn’t want a legalization measure on the ballot during the midterm election, preferring to put the question before voters during the big dance in 2012, when presidential politics ramps up interest and shakes out cash.
"Richard Lee took the lead on this," says Gutwillig. "Mainstream drug policy–reform organizations initially advised waiting for the more hospitable electorate in 2012."
Besides a lack of cash or wholehearted backing from its own pro-legalization brethren, Proposition 19 might have suffered from the bad taste left in the mouths of otherwise sympathetic folk in the pot-shop capital of the country, Los Angeles.
The most recent California Field Poll had Proposition 19 losing 51 percent to 38 percent in Los Angeles County, a region where pot is, in practice, almost legal because of the ease of obtaining medical marijuana.
Eagle Rock neighborhood activist Michael Larsen notes that it took the Los Angeles City Council many years to get its medical-marijuana dispensary ordinance in order. In his view, Los Angeles–area voters were down on Proposition 19 because they imagined the havoc it would wreak when that rubber-spined political body had to make even more complex decisions. (Proposition 19 left taxation and regulation of retail cannabis up to cities, towns and counties.)
"If we thought the medical-marijuana thing has been out of control, this would compound that," Larsen says, noting the "huge silent majority in Los Angeles who are fed up with pot shops."
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While Proposition 19's backers said the measure asked a clear question — legalize it or not — foes said the language of the initiative was disturbingly vague, leaving questions of day-to-day regulation to local jurisdictions. Voters were also left uncertain how the measure would stem the drug cartel–driven supply lines of today's pot scene.
"There were too many unanswered questions to give it wholehearted support," says "No on 19" spokesman Roger Salazar. "It just wanted to legalize use without a prescribed and controlled structure."
Still, backers say Proposition 19 did a noble job of setting up another run at legalization, probably in the presidential-election year of 2012.
Says Gutwillig of the Drug Policy Alliance: "This issue is not going anywhere and is likely to be stronger because this debate has placed reforming failed marijuana laws squarely in the mainstream political discourse."