Age Gap May Prevail on Marijuana Legalization

California's Prop. 19 needs young voters to overcome the enthusiasm gap and hit the polls if it has a shot at passing

During the summer, when some polls indicated Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina were within striking distance of Jerry Brown and Barbara Boxer, respectively, Golden State politics watchers thought perhaps liberal proponents of Proposition 19, the ballot initiative that would legalize marijuana, would flock to the polls and put Brown and Boxer over the top on election night.

Yet, with Brown and Boxer locked in dogfights with their Republican opponents, it seems as if Prop. 19 will be plagued by the same sort of enthusiasm gap Democrats are experiencing nationally and is thus in danger of not passing. According to all recent polls, from CNN to Survey USA to Field to the Los Angeles Times, likely voters seem poised to defeat Prop.19. There's a clear age gap in these polls, as expected, with younger voters overwhelmingly favoring the initiative and older voters staunchly opposing it. In midterm elections, though, the electorate tends to be older, and this is reflected in the poll numbers.

Many luminaries such as Snoop Dogg and George Soros as well as prominent organizations such as the SEIU and the Latino Police Officers Organization have endorsed the initiative.

Many other groups, prominent politicians like Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, and even the San Francisco Chronicle, in a city whose sports fans wear "Let Timmy Smoke" t-shirts (a reference to the cult-like Giants pitcher who was pulled over for marijuana possession during the off-season), oppose it. The San Francisco Chronicle noted, among other things, that the initiative was poorly designed and may create more problems, particularly by allowing citizens to drive after smoking marijuana and by including a nondiscrimination clause that would prevent employers from firing employees for marijuana use until they could prove a direct connection to job impairment.

Proponents of Prop. 19 cite many factors that the rest of the nation should pay attention to. For one, California has a massive budget deficit and legalizing and taxing marijuana could add revenue, more so in cash-strapped municipalities. Gang violence is increasing as a result of the drug trade and the prohibition on marijuana, and proponents of Prop. 19 feel legalizing marijuana would end the drug war they view as being a waste of time and resources.

Then there's the prison factor. Though minorities, particularly African Americans and Latinos, do not smoke marijuana more than whites do, minorities disproportionately bear the burden of going to jail and getting arrested because of laws against possession. This crowds an already overburdened prison system and deprives those who are arrested for possession a shot at a better future.

Those against Prop. 19 cite a litany of reasons as well, but older voters seem primarily stuck on the belief that legalizing marijuana would just increase California's drug problem and that the drug would gain the ubiquity and abuse level of alcohol. They also fear potential spillover effects and believe the drug is a gateway to more serious drugs.

The powerful Prison Guard Union is playing Switzerland and sitting this one out, perhaps symbolizing the sound and compelling arguments on both sides of the debate.

And of course, even if grassroots supporters mobilize to get the initiative passed, the Obama Administration has said that it would vigorously enforce federal laws against marijuana. As more polls show the initiative is likely to fail, this is a bridge the White House, perhaps to its relief, will probably not have to cross.