Did Eric Holder Kill California's Pot Initiative?

California voters have sided against legalizing marijuana for recreational use statewide. Should Eric Holder get the credit?

That's what one California Democratic strategist suggested to me on Tuesday night after Proposition 19 had been declared a failure, who cited a blow delivered by Holder in the final week.

Two weeks before Election Day, the attorney general announced that if Prop. 19 passed, the federal government would fight it.

The Department of Justice opposed Prop. 19 and would "vigorously enforce" marijuana's federal illegality in California regardless of whether the measure passed, Holder wrote in an October 15 letter to former DEA administrators, responding to their own letter, which in early September urged Holder to fight Prop. 19 by suing California to overturn it, should it pass.

This was the most public and direct repudiation of Prop. 19, specifically, that Holder had issued to date. He had previously said marijuana legalization is a bad idea, which the administration's drug czar had said as well, although the Department of Justice had not publicly commented on any aftermath. Federal law enforcers had said that it would remain their goal to uphold the laws, continuing their focus on large-scale trafficking and criminal networks--which is what the Department of Justice, the FBI, and the DEA have traditionally done.

This was picked up by California publications, including L.A. Weekly and the L.A Times.

In September, it looked as if Prop. 19 would pass. Two national polling services that use automated polling technology (doubted my many journalists and pollsters) had shown Prop. 19 winning, and Field Research, a respected California polling firm that uses live interviews, had come out with a survey showing the measure passing 49 percent to 42 percent.

By contrast, polling took a nosedive in the final two weeks before Election Day. The measure eventually failed by a margin of 53.9 percent to 46.1 percent.

Did Holder have something to do with it?

Well, maybe. Maybe not.

One October poll had already shown Prop. 19 failing badly: in an Oct. 2-4 survey, Reuters/Ipsos found it failing by more than 10 percent, with 49 percent opposition and 37 support.

After Holder's announcement, other polling firms weighed in with more evidence. An Oct 21-23 survey by Public Policy Polling, which had previously shown Prop. 19 ahead, gauged 48 percent opposition and 45 percent support. An Oct 21-24 Suffolk University poll showed it failing 55 percent to 40 percent.

Holder's announcement probably didn't help, but it also probably didn't cause Proposition 19 to fail. It may have sealed the deal in some sense...proponents of legalizing marijuana have said that questions over the federal government's response weigh down their chances across the nation.

As legalizers pushed for new medical marijuana laws in multiple states, one legalization advocate told me, a major difficulty in gaining votes--either at the polls or in state legislatures--was the truth that marijuana is illegal under federal law. The possibility remained that, whatever a state did, the feds would still arrest people for doing whatever the state deemed legal--and this was a big obstacle to getting people motivated behind the push to legalize.

The publication of Holder's comments certainly didn't give anyone more faith that the feds would let Prop. 19 take its full, intended effect. It may have helped undecideds make up their decision. But Holder shouldn't get the bulk of the credit for California's marijuana laws remaining unchanged.

Presented by

Chris Good is a political reporter for ABC News. He was previously an associate editor at The Atlantic and a reporter for The Hill.

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