Was Prop. 19's Defeat a Victory?


"In many ways," writes Aaron Houston of Students for Sensible Drug Policy, "we did win" last night. Not in the most obvious way, mind you, since Proposition 19, California's marijuana legalization initiative, ultimately attracted support from only 46 percent of voters, down from 52 percent in a September survey by the Public Policy Institute of California. The actual outcome was exactly what poll maven Nate Silver projected two weeks ago based on "a trendline from all surveys on the initiative." Despite a conspicuous pro-legalization campaign that far outspent the opposition, the share of Californians who voted for Prop. 19 was only two percentage points higher than the share of Nevadans who supported a similar initiative, Question 7, in 2006. Still, says Houston, "Proposition 19 has done more for the marijuana legalization movement than anything to date," because it "has brought the failures of prohibition under a global spotlight and reframed the debate in our favor." Ethan Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance likewise tries to find a silver lining in Prop. 19's defeat:

We should savor this moment. Although Prop. 19, California's ballot initiative to end marijuana prohibition, did not prevail at the ballot box, this vote marks an historic victory for marijuana reform.

Even without becoming law, Prop. 19 has had a permanent impact on the national conversation. This initiative has elevated and legitimized public discourse about marijuana and marijuana policy in a way I have never seen before. Because of Prop. 19, marijuana reform is now a mainstream political issue.

Although this is the sort of thing you'd expect drug policy reform groups to tell their supporters (and donors) after a disappointment like this, I think there is a lot of truth to it. The debate over Prop. 19, which received a great deal of national attention by virtue of California's size and significance, has highlighted the intellectual bankruptcy of the prohibitionist position in a way that nothing in recent memory has. Drug warriors were (or should have been) highly motivated to defeat the initiative because of the precedent it would set for drug policy federalism. Yet their arguments were embarrassingly bad. Really, really, really, really, really bad. This weakness, together with the growing influence of age cohorts in which a history of marijuana use is the norm, is reflected in rising public support for legalization, which a Gallup poll last week put at 46 percent—a new high in that organization's surveys. By contrast, a Gallup poll in 1977, a time that is remembered as relatively pot-tolerant compared to the Just Say No era that followed it, found that only 28 percent of Americans favored legalization.