Politics of Pot: Marijuana on Four Ballots Energizes Political Debate

Proposition 19 in California Calls for Legalization of Marijuana, State Tax

September 3, 2010, 2:31 PM

Sept. 7, 2010— -- Marijuana is on the ballot in four states this November, including the first effort of its kind in California to fully legalize pot, but don't expect politicians to get high on the idea any time soon.

In what could become another hot button political issue this November, Democrats in California are divided over Proposition 19, which would legalize marijuana use and allow government to make money off of it by imposing new regulations and taxes.

The California government projected that at an excise tax of $50 per ounce, the new law would bring in about $1.4 billion in revenues for the state. Several members of Congress, such as Reps. Pete Stark, Barbara Lee and George Miller have spoken candidly in favor of it. The California Democratic Party chose not to take any position on it. But virtually all heavy hitters are opposed to it, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Sen. Barbara Boxer, and both gubernatorial candidates.

The reason -- voters still haven't warmed up to the idea yet.

While polls show increasing support over the years among Americans for full legalization of marijuana, the majority still prefers the status quo. An Associated Press-CNBC poll released in April found that 33 percent of Americans favored legalization of pot, while an overwhelming 55 percent opposed it. An earlier ABC News/Washington Post poll released in January found 46 percent support for legalizing small amounts of marijuana for personal use.

"The public, generally for their children and their community, are just afraid of narcotics and partly rightly so," said Stark, D-Calif., who supports decriminilization of drugs on the federal level.

The split within the Democratic party on this issue is not surprising, Stark said. In an election year where the future of the Democratic party looks unstable and it's unclear whether the party will even keep it's majority after November, candidates running for statewide offices are steering clear of such controversial issues, Stark said, especially when large parts of their constituencies are opposed to legalization of marijuana.

Stark himself represents a district in the San Francisco Bay area, considered to be among the most liberal in the country.

It's also an issue that doesn't rank high on people's minds during a recession and period of high unemployment.

"There's some discussion in Congress but I would suggest that it's probably not one of those leading issues right now -- Jobs being the major concern that we have, and spending a lot of money that we don't have is a far bigger concern," Stark told ABC News. "But it does come up from time to time."

Gary Johnson, former two-term Republican governor of New Mexico, supports legalization of marijuana and argues that it will lead to a more effective fight against drugs. He blames the stalemate on the federal government and on both Republicans and Democrats.

"For the most part, politics is about following the herd as opposed to providing leadership," Johnson, who is speculated to be considering a run for the White House in 2012, told ABC News. "For me, it was a cost-benefit analysis, period. It's the fact that half of what we spend in law enforcement and the courts and the prisons is drug related, to what end?"

Johnson disagrees with the idea that dabbling in the politics of drugs would be harmful -- he cites his own approval rating as governor, saying it was steady even after he made his position known.

"It's a really good political issue because it's the truth. It's the emperor wears no clothes," he said.

Initiatives opening up the passage of medical marijuana use will be up for a vote in three states -- Oregon, Arizona and South Dakota. If the measures pass, these three states would join 14 other states and Washington, D.C., where medical marijuana use is legal.

Support for medicinal use, unlike full legalization, is still strong. An ABC News/Washington Post poll in January found that 81 percent of Americans supported medical marijuana laws.

Proposition 19 Faces Difficult Road in California

Support for Proposition 19 is divided, with most recent surveys showing more support for it than opposition. But unlike other recent hot button issues, such as gay marriage, this has so far failed to attract the kind of grassroots attention among voters, especially young Californians, that proponents were hoping it would.

In fact, even some who support legalization of marijuana oppose Proposition 19 on the grounds that it doesn't achieve the goals it was designed to do.

"The taxation scheme is so convoluted that folks who are supposed to be the main beneficiaries are coming out against it," said Roger Salazar, spokesman for the "No On Proposition 19" campaign. "There are concerns across the board because the thing was so poorly written."

Supporters say the initiative will generate new revenue for the state and lessen the burden on law enforcement and prisons if it passes, but some argue that the idea that it will help cash-strapped California is a hoax.

"You can't get revenue for something that's a federal felony and a state law can't repeal federal law," said Mark Kleiman, professor of public policy at University of California, Los Angeles and director of the Drug Policy Analysis Program. "All the revenues have to be spent on drug prevention and treatment -- it does nothing for states' or localities' budget deficits."

"We have to be very, very, very stoned for that proposition to make sense," Kleiman added.

Regardless, supporters say the fact that such a measure is on the ballot is still a step forward. California is the second state to dabble in such a measure. Earlier this year a marijuana-legalization bill in Washington state was struck down by the legislature.

Proposition 19 is the "opening stage of the modern era of modern reform," said Ethan Nadelmann, founder and executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, which advocates for legalization of marijuana.

"Whether Proposition 19 wins or loses, it's already a winner," Nadelmann told ABC News. "What it's done is legitimized and elevated a discussion about marijuana policy in a way that has never happened before. It's generated a level and seriousness and sophistication of dialogue and debate unlike what we've had before. This is the first time you have members of Congress saying they will vote for it."

Nadelmann and other proponents of the ballot initiative equate it to gay rights, in that "people are coming out of the closet and defeating the notion that they need to be punished for engaging in this 'deviant activity.'"

Slow Movement on the Federal Level

While support for decriminalizing marijuana has gained momentum, especially in Washington and California, at the federal level the subject remains a sensitive one.

Rand Paul, the GOP libertarian-leaning Senate candidate in Kentucky whose father supports legalization, illustrated that when he famously reversed his position -- initially supporting medical marijuana usage but then shifting his stance, telling the Associated Press this month he opposes legalization of marijuana, even for medicinal purposes.

Members of Congress say discussions on the issue have been brewing but have yet to surface. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, is an outspoken advocate of states' rights when it comes to legalizing marijuana and Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., has also spoken widely in favor of legalizing it. But there has been mostly silence from the Senate on this issue.

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