Beyond the Drug War Era: Assessing the Campaign to Legalize Marijuana

By Alex Kreit, assistant professor of law and director of the Center for Law and Social Justice at Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego. Kreit is author of the ACS Issue Brief, "Toward a Public Health Approach to Drug Policy." Now that California's Proposition 19, which would have legalized marijuana, has gone down in defeat, those who follow drug policy issues are beginning to reflect on why the initiative failed to pass and what the result might mean for marijuana policy going forward. As someone who researches and writes about controlled substances laws, I'm happy to have the opportunity to share a few preliminary thoughts of my own. With regard to why Proposition 19 faltered, there are a number of individual factors that likely cost the measure a few percentage points of support, such as insufficient funds for a statewide television ad campaign and running the measure in a midterm where youth turnout was much lower than in a presidential cycle. But, it is also important to keep in mind that passage was always something of a long shot. Although polling showed the initiative with support in the low 50-percent range for much of the campaign, conventional wisdom holds that measures polling below 60 percent going into a campaign are unlikely to pass. This is because most ballot initiatives tend to lose support over time, particularly in the home stretch of the campaign. Simply put, it's easier to convince someone to vote against something than for it. A vote against a ballot measure preserves the status quo. As a result, sowing one or two doubts about an initiative in a voter's mind is usually enough to get that person to oppose it, even if he or she is generally supportive of the aims of the initiative. The "No on Prop.19" campaign smartly played on this dynamic. Their campaign slogan, for example, did not even mention marijuana legalization but instead called on voters to reject the initiative because it was "a jumbled legal nightmare" regardless of their views on legalization. The Chamber of Commerce's advertisement against the measure likewise ominously warned voters that "Prop. 19 would do more than simply legalize marijuana," and focused on the supposed adverse effects of an employment provision contained in the initiative. read more

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