Poll: Californians Narrowly Oppose Legalizing Marijuana

Californians will vote this fall on whether or not marijuana should be legal in some parts of the state. What will they decide?

Polling on marijuana in California was scarce before the Tax Cannabis campaign officially ramped up, but in the past few months more legitimate surveys have been conducted, and we're getting a clearer picture of whether people actually want to make the leap and let counties legalize regulate and tax pot.

More polling is out today: Californians narrowly oppose legalization, by a margin of 48% to 44%, in the latest survey from Field, which described Proposition 19 in an accurate fashion and then asked people how they'd vote.

The issue is fairly divisive, and everyone seems to have an opinion. Only 8% were undecided, and 77% of voters have heard of it (by comparison, 63% have an opinion on Senate candidate Carly Fiorina). Field polled 1,005 likely voters June 22-July 5, with a +/-3.2% margin of error.

For about a year, marijuana reformers have insisted that legalization is popular, citing an April 2009 Field poll (which they still cite) that showed 56% support for legalizing and taxing marijuana to solve the state's $20+ billion budget deficit.

Since then, more polling has been conducted that supports their conclusion. This year, SurveyUSA conducted a poll on April 20 of all days (ha ha, good one SurveyUSA), and, lo and behold, 56% said California should "legalize the use of marijuana," while 42% opposed it in the automated survey of 500 Californians.

The Tax Cannabis campaign contracted an internal poll that showed 51% support to 40% opposition when pollsters read the title of the initiative as it appears on the ballot, "Changes California Law to Legalize Marijuana and Allow It to Be Regulated and Taxed." The poll found 52% support when respondents heard the brief summary, written by California's attorney general (who happens to be gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brown, who has stayed neutral on the measure), which will appear under the title on the ballot.

The law would work like this: if Prop. 19 passes, counties will be able to individually legalize regulate marijuana if they so choose, and marijuana would be treated largely like alcohol: counties could only legalize the sale of it for adults over 21, and driving while impaired or possessing it around schools would still be illegal. Taxation would be left up to the counties. You can read the full text of the ballot initiative here.

One major challenge for legalization: Gil Kerlikowske, the Obama administration's drug czar, has made it clear that legalizing marijuana is a "non-starter," and it appears that the federal government is NOT on board with letting California legalize en masse. If only a few counties legalize, it might be less concerned, and it's doubtful that the federal government has enough law enforcement capacity to enforce federal drug laws in California. A lawsuit against the state--a la the Justice Department's suit against Arizona over its immigration law--resting on the Constitution's Supremacy Clause for federal law's supersedence over state law, might be a natural recourse if the Obama administration wants federal drug laws upheld.

The feds and their potential nixing of ballot initiatives has traditionally been an issue for state-level campaigns to legalize medical marijuana--how do you convince voters to support it if the federal government will probably step in and nix the new law?--but a strategist for the Tax Cannabis initiative said Californians haven't voiced too much concern over that possibility. Perhaps the Obama administration's decision to allow state-level legalization of medical marijuana (not marijuana for entertainment purposes) has helped.

If the close polling is any indication, the federal government's reaction to Prop. 19 is an open question that may get answered after Californians vote on the measure in November.