Marijuana Legalization Fails in California

Marijuana won't be legal in California--at least not for a while.

California voters have sided against Proposition 19, which would have legalize possession of marijuana statewide and let counties allow for commercial sale, by sizable margins (56 percent to 44 percent) with 12 percent of precincts reporting. The Sacramento Bee has called the race: Prop. 19 has failed.

This was more or less expected, as polls leading up to Election Day showed Prop. 19 failing by around 10 percentage points. For a moment in September, Prop. 19 had rated as a slim favorite to win, after a preponderance of polling data showed it in the lead. As more polls came out over the last month, it became a significant underdog.

Prop. 19's supporters couldn't overcome a slide leading up to Election Day, as the No on 19 ran what was, by some accounts, a traditional campaign of painting marijuana as a danger to society. No on 19 rolled out endorsement after endorsement, from every major candidate for statewide office in California, including Democrats Jerry Brown and Sen. Barbara Boxer. A last-minute surge of pro-legalization money from superdonors Peter Lewis (of Progressive Insurance) and George Zimmer (of the Men's Wearhouse) wasn't enough to fight back.

The big money wasn't as big as it could have been, either: only $170,000 came from big donors, while George Soros sat this contest out. Part of that could be attributed, depending on how one looks at it, to the early warnings from the major players in drug policy, the Drug Policy Alliance, which for all intents and purposes controls the purse strings of marijuana politics and told potential big donors, before Prop. 19 gained so much steam over the summer, that, while promising, the bill was flawed as written and was being put on the ballot in a bad election year.

George Soros also gave $1 million to Drug Policy Alliance's campaign last Friday.

How did Prop. 19 fail?

Voters may have soured, and enthusiasm may have dipped, after Attorney General Eric Holder vowed to fight Prop. 19 if it passed and "vigorously enforce" federal drug laws in the state, in an October 15 letter to former DEA administrators who had formally urged him to sue California if the law passed.

That solved the big question hanging over Prop. 19, which had been: What will the federal government do if California legalizes pot? Will it uphold federal laws? Or will it let California legalize the drug if its residents chose to do so?

Holder sent "a message to all those swing voters that, even if this makes sense to me, maybe it isn't okay with the Democrats running the country," said a California Democratic strategist.

So Holder may have effectively killed this measure.

The history of Prop. 19 was a fraught one: California pot entrepreneur Richard Lee--who runs a coffee shop, medical marijuana dispensary, and university on how to grow marijuana out of Oakland--put this measure on the ballot against the advice of the established voices in the marijuana community, putting up over $1 million of his company's money to gather signatures and get it on the ballot. As momentum gained, the other players got on board.

Lee has said that legalizers will probably try again in 2012 if Prop. 19 fails, as it apparently has. It's questionable whether they will want to, since it's difficult to try again just two years after failing--that was the dilemma gay-marriage supporters went through after the heartbreak of Prop. 8's passage in 2008.

But legalizers have long said that 2012 would be a good year for pot in California. Presidential elections offer broader electorates, and 2010 was an exceptionally bad year of turnout nationally for the type of voters one could expect to support marijuana legalization.

So you never know. Tests ballots will be tested, donor interest will be gaugued. If the final results are encouraging; if legalizers assume that 2010's GOP wave brought inherent disadvantages that wouldn't exist in 2012; if Prop. 19 has succeeded in driving the notion of marijuana legalization further into the mainstram; if White House operatives don't squash it to save the president from taking a position in an election year--it's conceivable we'll see another attempt in 2012.