California's Marijuana Initiative: A Problem for Obama?

If California voters decide to legalize marijuana throughout the state, President Obama will have a decision on his hands.

Politically, it will be a tough one.

Polling now suggests that, if the vote were taken today, the Proposition 19 legalization ballot initiative would pass--Field Research shows 49 - 42 percent support, while Public Policy Polling shows Prop. 19 passing 47 - 38 percent--and pressure is already mounting on the White House to sue California if it does, just as Attorney General Eric Holder's Justice Department is now suing Arizona over its controversial SB 1070 immigration law.

Earlier this month, nine former administrators of the Drug Enforcement Administration sent a letter calling on Obama and Holder to sue if Prop. 19 passes, blocking the statewide legalization of possession and personal growth and the allowance of individual counties to license commercial sale and production of marijuana.

A lawsuit may not be so simple--the federal government may have a better case against Prop. 19's commercial provisions than its sections on personal use--but regardless, if Prop. 19 passes, Obama and Holder will have to decide what to do.

The pressure will likely be intense. Legalized marijuana is practically inconceivable to large swaths of the country, and one can see the broader coalition of social conservatives and concerned moderates reeling in shock on November 3, aghast at California's decadence and lawlessness, and turning to President Obama to put a stop to it.

Make no mistake: the legalization of marijuana in the country's largest state by population, with governmentally sanctioned commercial grow-houses and open storefronts (which will probably arise, according to one longtime marijuana advocate, in Oakland, West Hollywood, and maybe one other county) would be a major change in this country. Commercial distribution of medical marijuana already happens in a few places around the country, and it's allegedly pretty loose in California and Colorado. But outright legalization is a different thing entirely.

If Obama doesn't take action, he'll be seen as the president who let this happen. It could very well lead many people to vote against him in 2012.

At this point, it seems the Obama administration will sue California, but that's just an educated guess: the Justice Department has declined to comment. Obama's drug czar, former Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske, has weighed in firmly against legalization on a national scale, and he submitted an op-ed to the L.A. Times co-authored with several former drug czars (some of whom have taken a very hard line against medical marijuana) warning that Prop. 19 would increase social costs by leading to more marijuana use.

But while standing on the sidelines would probably damage Obama with many voters, a lawsuit could bring its own political costs.

In California, Prop. 19 is backed by some of the voting blocs that handed Obama his victory in 2008, including Democrats, who support legalization by a 60 - 28 percent margin, according to Field; independents, who support it 62 - 33 percent; 18 - 29 year-olds, who support it 59 - 33 percent; and 40 - 49 year-olds, who support it 53 - 38 percent.

The only significant opposition to Prop. 19, according to Field, comes from older voters: 50 - 64 year-olds oppose it 47 - 43 percent, while likely voters 65 and older oppose it 53 - 36 percent.

Voters are, of course, different in different places, and Field's numbers only represent what they've found to be true of likely California voters. There isn't any recent data (to my knowledge) on how these voter groups feel about California's legalization plan nationally.

One can, however, envision a coalition of younger and marginalized voters being disappointed in Obama if Prop. 19 passes and he decides to sue. Call them the Shepard Fairey coalition. In 2008, Obama was cool among this crowd; if he attacks Prop. 19, a lot of that mojo will disappear. Being seen as a buzzkill never helped any politician among young and disaffected voters, much less Obama, who rode their support to victory.

Add in the fact that elements within the progressive establishment are coming to publicly support legalization--most notably Firedoglake's Jane Hamsher, who launched a half-million-dollar organizing effort around marijuana this year--and you have a liberal coalition that could be of consequence. Ron Paul libertarians, meanwhile, prefer to treat drug laws as a states' rights issue and would likely oppose federal efforts to block Prop. 19 from taking effect.

None of this may matter. At this point, authority figures are generally expected to oppose any kind of drug legalization, and even marijuana advocates would tell you that politicians are behind the curve of marijuana-legalization support. That's the paradigm. Legalization supporters may forgive Obama for making the predictable move, and none of this is to say that the federal reaction to Prop. 19 will become the prime voting issue for any voting bloc.

But if Prop. 19 passes, it will be a major issue in this country. Many will be surprised. How the president handles it will have political implications not just for California, but for his own political fortunes in 2012.