Will Pot Be Legal By The End Of This Decade?

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Despite the defeat of Prop 19 in California, advocates of marijuana legalization say time is on their side.

The coming decade will be known as the decade of marijuana reform across the country.

The narrow defeat of California's Proposition 19 initiative last November suggests why this is likely to be true. Championed by Oakland-based medical marijuana activists, Prop. 19 would have decriminalized the possession and cultivation of small amounts of marijuana by adults 21 and older. It also would have directly challenged the federal prohibition on marijuana by allowing cities and counties across the state to regulate and tax sales of marijuana to adults within their jurisdictions.

Easily the most-watched initiative on the 2010 ballot nationwide, Prop. 19 drew 46.5 percent of the vote, a new record for marijuana legalization. Attracting more than 4.6 million votes, it easily out-polled California's ill-fated zillionaire Gubernatorial and Senate candidates, Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina, with a tiny fraction of their extraordinary war chests.

In the wake of the vote, national marijuana reform advocates were immediately heartened, if not emboldened, by the prospects for ending decades of failed, punitive prohibitionist policies. That's because Prop. 19 fared surprisingly well in the face of a truly inhospitable electoral climate.

Midterm election voters traditionally skew older and more conservative than the much larger electorate that can be expected to vote in a Presidential election. While there had been hopes that a surge of younger reform-minded voters would defy conventional wisdom, the Prop. 19 campaign didn't have nearly enough advertising dollars to shift entrenched voting patterns in a state as large as California.

In the face of these structural obstacles, the record-setting 46.5 percent flouted the expectations of most sophisticated political observers in the state.

What's more, recent polling indicates just how close the marijuana reform issue is to widespread success.

Gallup has measured a 10-point jump nationally in the last decade in support of making marijuana legal, registering support from 46 percent of all Americans late last year. Significant majorities exist among Democrats and progressives, and across western states. The California electorate is particularly promising. A post-election survey revealed that half of all voters support marijuana legalization, including a startling 31 percent of those who voted against Prop. 19 . That last factoid suggests that some aspect of this particular initiative's content—possibly the novelty of posting the issue on the ballot, met with disfavor among otherwise supportive voters last year.

No one can deny the remarkable demographic dimension of this reform movement. If young voters had comprised the same percentage of the electorate last month as they do in presidential election years, support for Prop. 19 would have reached 49 percent of the vote, clearly within striking distance of victory. What's more, Newsweek found that a commanding 70 percent of voters under 30 nationally would support a Prop. 19-style reform in their state.

Even in defeat, Proposition 19 legitimized marijuana legalization as a serious, mainstream political issue. The international media coverage was intense, informed and incessant. What's more, last year's campaign served as a national template for building a new reform coalition that included prominent civil rights organizations and labor unions calling for an end to these wasteful, ineffective policies that also disproportionately target African Americans and Latinos.

As a result, a flurry of marijuana legalization initiatives is already on the drawing board in a number of states, primarily in the West, with an eye toward 2012. Californians, in particular, are likely to get another crack at ending marijuana prohibition in the nation's most populous state. Research on voter attitudes and fundraising will determine just how many initiatives will actually make it to the ballot.

Nevertheless, expect to see marijuana reform efforts bubbling up across the country every two years for some time to come. Prop. 19 has created unprecedented momentum as we enter this new decade.

Stephen Gutwillig is California director of the Drug Policy Alliance, a national advocacy organization and one of the principal supporters of Proposition 19.

Photo by Dustin Sacks via Flickr.

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