Although Proposition 19 did not prevail at the polls, the campaign to legalize marijuana in California is not over. The initiative received more yes votes than either Meg Whitman or Carly Fiorina and won the backing of a whopping 64% of voters aged 18 to 34. Far from demonstrating insurmountable opposition to what was once a radical idea, its supporters say, the election demonstrated that momentum is on the side of ending prohibition.
Certainly the campaign transformed the public dialogue on drug policy. For decades, the legalization of cannabis was a topic that mainly interested hemp activists, judicial reform advocates and libertarians. Now it has crossed into the mainstream. The nation's flawed drug policy was set out for all to see, including its failure to reduce the consumption or availability of marijuana, the attendant black market economy that drives gang violence, and chronic, widespread flouting of the law — circumstances that invited comparison to the Al Capone era and the prohibition of alcohol.
But Proposition 19 was a badly drafted mess. Voters were deciding on regulations for Californians to live by, not theoretical principles. If the backers of legalization want to reopen the discussion, they need to work out the kinks that were deal-breakers for many voters, including the measure's potentially chaotic regulatory scheme and its ludicrous workplace protections for marijuana-smoking employees.
Once that's done, the debate can get underway in earnest. What would legalization do to the drug cartels? Would it increase the drug's availability? Is marijuana more harmful than alcohol or not? What would be the effect of legalization on prices? On children? Could legalization be accomplished without provoking a conflict with federal law? What tax revenues really could be captured?
It's not enough merely to say that the nation's current drug policy isn't working. Proponents of legalization must show that they won't be condoning drug use, that they can raise badly needed revenue and generally improve the quality of life for the state's residents.
The Proposition 19 coalition decried what it called the scare tactics of the opposition, but those weren't just tactics. For many voters, legalization is scary. The next time the state debates legalization, we hope supporters will have clear answers to the lingering questions and a proposition that stands on its own merits rather than its intentions.