Prop 19 Was Only The Beginning
California voters came out in droves to support Proposition 19 this November. More than 4.1 million people voted for Prop. 19, which would have allowed adults 21 and older to possess and grow small amounts of marijuana for personal use and allow cities and counties to tax and regulate commercial sales. That's more votes than Meg Whitman or Carly Fiorina garnered. Though the measure didn't pass, the degree of support marks an undeniable leap forward in the movement to end marijuana prohibition. In the end, Prop. 19 achieved a higher percentage of "yes" votes (46%) than any state-level legalization measure on the ballot over the past decade.
This is clearly only the beginning of a new, more rational public discussion about marijuana. It's no longer a question of whether marijuana prohibition should end, but rather when and how. Post-election polling data shows that many voters who rejected Prop. 19 nonetheless believe that marijuana should be made legal. Even the leaders of the opposition to Prop. 19 publicly stated that they are not opposed to marijuana legalization, "if it's done the right way."
There is already talk about another initiative on the California ballot in 2012, and California Assemblyman Tom Ammiano has pledged to introduce a new statewide tax and regulate bill. And California is not alone in its efforts. Several other states are likely to have legalization or decriminalization on the ballot in the near future, including Washington, Oregon, Alaska, Colorado and Nevada. What we know is that it is clear that states do indeed have the right to decide for themselves whether or not to keep state marijuana prohibition laws on the books.
The war on drugs has failed, and people are ready for a change. The United States has the highest documented incarceration rate in the world. One in every 31 adults is on probation, in jail or in prison. FBI figures show that over 800,000 people in the U.S. are arrested for marijuana offenses each year. The vast majority of these arrests are for low-level, nonviolent simple possession offenses. Drug law enforcement in the United States is a driving force behind some of the worst aspects of our flawed criminal justice system, including tragic racial disparities. People of color are arrested at far higher rates than whites for marijuana offenses, even though rates of drug use are equal across racial lines. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, we incarcerate black men in the United States today at rates more than five times higher than in South Africa during apartheid.
The public is taking notice that ending marijuana prohibition will ease our overwhelmed state and local budgets, and will free up law enforcement resources to address serious and violent crime.
Despite the disappointing outcome, Prop. 19 was a giant step in the right direction. Let's keep the discussion going.
Allen Hopper is the Criminal Justice and Drug Policy Director with the ACLU of Northern California.