As The Times reported Wednesday, voters did not approve Proposition 19, the marijuana legalization measure on Tuesday's ballot. Despite the defeat, this is still a watershed moment in the long struggle to end marijuana prohibition in this country. California's historic ballot initiative has impacted the national debate for the long term, placing marijuana legalization squarely in the mainstream of American politics. It is likely to maintain that status for years to come as the national reform movement builds on this remarkable campaign and on the overwhelming support of younger voters.
Few of us could have predicted the shift in discourse that occurred this year. Marijuana legalization, long an issue on the political sidelines, became central to voter excitement in this election. And that shift appears likely to hold well beyond this single campaign. California's experience with Proposition 19 has radically expanded and deepened the national conversation about the failure of marijuana prohibition and about the sensible and principled reasons to embrace a policy of marijuana control instead.
Media coverage is one barometer of this change. For years mainstream media outlets haven't quite known how to cover the movement for marijuana reform. Formerly wary of making this issue front-page news, outlets in every medium around the world closely followed Proposition 19 from start to finish. The headlines and content of marijuana policy articles, where puns were once a must, have evolved alongside the increasingly serious tone of the public debate. Californians in particular heard detailed arguments for ending its failed marijuana ban, a debate that will resonate in similar campaigns in Western states as soon as 2012. (Public support for legalizing marijuana now approaches or tops 50% in a growing number of states, including Washington, Oregon, Alaska, Colorado and Nevada.)
Another highly significant accomplishment of the Proposition 19 phenomenon is the unprecedented coalition it forged. Longtime drug policy reformers such as my organization were joined for the first time by mainstream civil rights groups, organized labor and the largest contingent of dissident law enforcement figures ever publicly assembled on this issue.
Decrying the chilling racial disparities in drug law enforcement, the California Conference of the NAACP, the Latino Voters League and each of the national black and Latino police officers associations declared the end of marijuana prohibition a racial justice priority. The Proposition 19 coalition prominently featured the state's largest union, SEIU of California, alongside longshore workers and food and commercial workers, pronouncing the economic impact of marijuana legalization a priority for working families. Retired judges, district attorneys, police chiefs and beat cops — many of them members of the group Law Enforcement Against Prohibition — publicly broke ranks with the public safety officials who dominated the opposition campaign.
And then there were the young people. In a now famous quip, California Democratic Party Chairman John Burton gave a one-word answer to a San Francisco Chronicle reporter's question about what would drive young voters to turn out this election: "Pot." Support for marijuana legalization among young likely voters in California has consistently polled between 70% and 80%. In a recent Newsweek poll, 70% of likely voters under 30 nationally would support a Proposition 19 in their own state, as would 51% of likely voters between 30 and 49. (By contrast, only 20% of those 65 or older were in support.) Marijuana legalization is an issue today's young voters — and tomorrow's middle-aged voters — are excited about. The Newsweek poll also found that marijuana legalization is a significant draw to the ballot box for under-30 voters, with 64% saying they would be more likely to vote if the issue were on the ballot.
As more young people join the electorate, the tide for reform is swelling. Proposition 19 showed them that a serious campaign can be waged to end marijuana prohibition, that serious people are with them, and that sensibility and principle are on their side. This is the wave that will end the disaster of marijuana prohibition in America.
Stephen Gutwillig is the California state director of the Drug Policy Alliance.