Politics of Pot: Marijuana on Four Ballots Energizes Political Debate

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

ByABC News
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.