I live in the heart of the Emerald Triangle, where the air turns skunky in the fall and everyone seems to be paying with sticky hundreds at the grocery store, even, perhaps especially, the people in ratty, tattered clothes, who totter out to the parking lot with their organic cheese doodles to remotely unlock their $60,000 German cars. The grow houses in my neighbourhood blow out the transformer so regularly that when I call PG&E to report another outage, they say ‘Stewart Street, again?’ Shrewd Craigslist browsers look for the keyword ‘215’ in listings, a reference to Proposition 215, California’s 1996 medical marijuana initiative, to see if prospective landlords will be down with a little dope in the backyard. When I travel and say I’m from Mendocino, I either get a blank look or ‘oh, Mendo, I had some really good weed from there once.’
Proposition 19, The Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis Act of 2010, is perhaps the hottest measure on California’s 2 November ballot (although the controversial Proposition 23 is also rather important) and it’s attracting nationwide attention. California already has some of the most liberal marijuana policy in the nation, including the first regulation allowing medical use. Locally, Mendocino County voters in 2000 approved Measure G, an initiative to decriminalise cultivation and possession of marijuana for personal use, making it a low priority for law enforcement, only to repeal it in 2008 with Measure B, reflecting some of the cracks and flaws in the legalisation movement, where opposition to legalisation comes from some surprising places.
If Proposition 19 passes in November, although it’s currently trailing in the polls after initially polling strongly, Californians 21 and older will be able to cultivate, possess, and transport marijuana so long as it’s for personal use. Local governments will have a framework for regulation and taxation of marijuana, and supporters claim that could result in $1.4 billion in tax revenues for the cash-strapped state annually. Supporters also claim that legalisation would cut into the bottom line for cartels, while critics argue that the impact of Prop 19 on drug smuggling would be negligible, especially since surrounding states don’t have legalisation measures on the ballot.
Even as supporters pound the pavement for Proposition 19, Eric Holder announced that federal drug laws will be ‘vigorously enforced‘ no matter what Californians say at the polls, illustrating a classic tension in the legalisation movement. The DOJ opposes Prop 19, as do people like LA County Sheriff Lee Baca, who argues that it will ‘complicate federal drug enforcement efforts.’
Opposition from law enforcement is hardly remarkable. Some of the other resistance to the measure has come from some surprising corners, though. The beer industry has also turned out in force against Proposition 19, donating $10,000 to defeat the proposition, undoubtedly because they don’t want to see threats to their bottom line, although here in Mendo, I’m just as likely to see people smoking a doobie on the porch as drinking a beer already and in fact savvy beer companies are already distancing themselves from the donation, a smart move when you consider how much money growers spend on beer during harvest season. Some of the opposition comes from an even more surprising source: Stoners and growers. Some radicals feel Prop 19 doesn’t go far enough, small growers worry about going out of business if marijuana goes mainstream, and a number of dispensaries also oppose it.
Here on the North Coast, Proposition 19 has sparked brisk debate, as it comes in a year when multiple encounters between law enforcement and growers have gone wrong, with shooting deaths in Mendocino and Lake Counties, among others. ‘Would Prop. 19 curb pot-linked violence?’ a local newspaper asks, pointing out that home invasions and robberies have increased across the Emerald Triangle, and that some local residents, including a 68 year old retired teacher, have taken matters into their own hands with armed patrols to look for grow operations not just on private land, but in state parks. As someone who’s avoided venturing too far into state parks myself during harvest season, I sympathise with frustrated community members lashing out at growers. It’s also notable that for such a ‘green’ product, marijuana has actually been linked with substantial pollution and litter as people dump fertilizer, chemicals, and garbage on public lands over the course of their grow operations, leaving local governments with the cleanup tab and generating a lot of anger among some environmentalists.
Meanwhile, the California Democratic Party, which has been courting the youth vote hard since 2008, declined to endorse Prop 19 and a number of top Democrats have indicated they don’t support it, even as California’s Republican Governor has expressed openness to discussing legalisation; when the Terminator supports a conversation about legalisation and the Democrats don’t, you have to scratch your head. Especially since all indicators suggest that Democratic strategists are looking ahead to 2012 and the possibility of getting pot-related initiatives on the ballot in swing states to, that’s right, increase turnout among young voters, under the argument that these initiatives will energise and mobilise a traditionally disaffected base.
Groups like Just Say Now are organising around Prop 19 and other marijuana-related initiatives across the country to get out the youth vote, pushing for record numbers at the polls in November. If their efforts are successful, young voters could be a significant force in this year’s midterm elections, bucking their reputation as a largely apathetic group of voters and having an impact on local and state races. Polls already suggest that Democratic candidates Barbara Boxer and Jerry Brown are enjoying support from young voters in California not because the Democratic party is mobilising youth, but because Proposition 19 is increasing youth interest in the election. This has implications beyond the November ballot: as President Obama faces significant pressure from within the government to take a hard line on Prop 19, some advocates warn that opposing it could cost him the youth vote in 2012.
Some critics are less convinced, arguing that young voters are already turning away from the Democrats, particularly over gay rights issues, and that the 2008 turnout was a fluke that can’t be replicated by tossing a little marijuana on the ballot. And, of course, legalisation measures could backfire by mobilising older voters, who already turn out in force, with conservative older voters in particular having a tendency to make sure they hit the polls when morals issues are on the ballot.
When we tried in legalise marijuana in 1972, we failed, but it’s clear that public opinion on marijuana and legalisation have shifted in the intervening decades. Proposition 19 has a strong chance of passing, and marijuana advocates around the country are interested in seeing what happens next; will California lead the way to a nationwide referendum on decriminalisation of marijuana?