Prop 19's Battle Lines -- Who's For? Who's Against?
October 7th, 2010
With election day now less than a month away, California's Proposition 19
tax and regulate marijuana legalization initiative is leading in most
polls (although a Monday Reuters/Ipsos poll showing it losing by nine
points sent a chill down the spines of supporters) and is
well-positioned to make California the first entity anywhere to legalize
marijuana. But what happens in the next 27 days is crucial, as
proponents and opponents alike seek to come up with the votes to
The battle lines are drawn. Lining up in support of Prop 19
are dozens of (mostly) retired law enforcement figures, including
former San Jose Police Chief Joe McNamara and former Seattle Police
Chief Norm Stamper, as well as Law Enforcement Against Prohibition and
the National Black Police Association; four California US congressmen;
dozens of state and local elected officials; local ACLU chapters; the
California NAACP; the California Libertarian Party, the California Green
Party; the California Young Democrats and many local Democratic groups;
the Republican Liberty Caucus; organized labor groups, including the
SEIU of California, the Western States UFCW, the longshoremen, and
various union locals; clergy, including the California Council of
Churches IMPACT and the Interfaith Drug Policy Initiative; economist Dr.
Jeffrey Miron; and a number of physicians, including former US Surgeon
General Joyce Elders. Last but not least, California's burgeoning
professional cannabis community has moved Prop 19 forward, with
supporters including the Harborside Health Center, the Berkeley Patients
Group, and the initiative's primary sponsor, Oaksterdam's Richard Lee.
On the other side
are the usual suspects: The California Narcotics
Officers' Association, the California Association of Highway Patrolmen,
the California Police Chiefs Association, the California Correctional
Supervisors Organization, the California Peace Officers Association, the
California District Attorney Association, and local police
associations. They are joined by all federal drug czars past and
present, past and present DEA administrators, both California US
senators and most of the congressional delegation, most newspaper
editorial boards, the California Chamber of Commerce, Mothers Against
Drunk Driving, the California Beer and Beverage Distributors (who
chipped in $10,000 to Public Safety First
a political action committee created to oppose Prop 19), Californians
for a Drug-Free Youth, DARE America, and other anti-drug organizations.
But given marijuana's increasing popular acceptance, legalization foes
aren't getting much traction anymore with "marijuana is the devil's
drug" messages. Instead, they are forced into tangential attacks: Prop
19 will lead to more drugged driving; it will lead to workers high on
the job, they say. It won't earn tax revenues because everyone will grow
his own. It will create a "regulatory nightmare." Jason Sullum at Reason magazine
and veteran expert activist and Prop 19 steering committee member Chris Conrad's Prop 19 Fact Check and Rumor Control
web page both do a thorough job of debunking those claims.
The opposition so far has been relatively low profile -- because it doesn't have any money. According to campaign contribution data
the California Secretary of State's office, Public Safety First has
only managed to raise $178,000 to oppose Prop 19 this year, and more
significantly, only has $54,000 in the bank right now. That's not enough
to bankroll any kind of media campaign in the nation's most populous
That's a change from the past, when foes of drug reform initiatives
could count on big money from special interests, as was the case in
2008, when a sentencing reform initiative that appeared headed for
victory went down in flames after a big injection of funds from the
powerful and wealthy prison guards' union. This year, the prison guards
and their pile of cash are sitting it out.
The Prop 19 campaign fervently hopes they continue to do just that. Its
worst fear at this point is a last-minute negative advertising blitz,
and there is still time for that to happen. That's because, like the
opposition, Prop 19 is essentially broke. Although it has raised more
than $700,000 this year, it only has $67,000 in the bank. An independent
pro-Prop 19 group has another $100,000 in the bank.
the opposition, the lack of cash means it has to work to try to get its
message out. Aside from the former drug czars coming out against the
measure, a handful of debates, the penning of some op-eds, and a
presence on the web, People First hasn't done much. It has held a
handful of lackluster press conferences, which have generated some
coverage, and spokesmen are always willing to give good quote when
reporters call, but so far, that's about it.
Other than for the lack of cash, opposition from the usual suspects
is pretty much as expected. What is surprising is the emergence of a
vocal anti-Prop 19 movement with the marijuana community. From cannabis
connoisseur Dragonfly de la Luz and her Stoners Against Prop 19
to Vote No on Prop 19
with its warning of a "Prop 19 cartel," to medical marijuana dispensary
operators like HopeNet, the Green Door, and the California Cannabis
Association, a fifth column within the marijuana movement is seeking to
defeat Prop 19.
Their arguments, which can be read on their web sites, are varied, but
boil down to a couple of main claims: that passage of Prop 19 will
somehow hurt medical marijuana patients or dispensaries, and that Prop
19 is "not legalization" because it sets possession limits and allows
for taxation and regulation of cultivation and distribution. There is an
additional fillip of conspiracy-tinged fears that Prop 19 will lead to a
corporate takeover of the pot industry. Left unspoken is the economic
self-interest of growers and dispensary operators.
Those arguments have been heartily answered in detail by, among others, Chris Conrad (here
), national NORML outreach director Russ Bellville (here
Those readers interested in the battle over clauses, intentions, and
meanings can compare the two sets of sites and decide for themselves.
"They have said nothing we have not been able to disprove," said Conrad,
"but it doesn't matter because they're not reality-based. They're like
our own little Tea Party, with a politics of fear and conspiracy stuff,
tangents about corporate takeovers, and libertarian anti-tax and
"We want parity and equality, and that means if you sell something, you
have to pay taxes," said Mikki Norris, Conrad's long-time partner in
life and activism. "The anti-tax thing has inserted itself into every
movement, including this one."
Richard Lee giving up on the presentation (but not the initiative)
Tensions boiled over during a debate last weekend at the Cow Palace in San Francisco during the International Cannabis and Hemp Expo
a pot industry trade show. Medical marijuana entrepreneur Richard Lee,
the primary motivating force behind Prop 19, was subjected to loud heckling and shouting
as he attempted to explain why pot people should vote for the
initiative. A disgusted Lee finally rolled away in his wheelchair,
leaving Conrad to carry on.
Nevertheless, Conrad sees the "Stoners Against Prop 19" types more as a
distraction than as serious opposition. "I don't think they're that
important, really," he said. "We have some serious opposition, and we're
waiting for those ads to come out, we're waiting for the school bus
full of children with the stoned driver. We're more worried about that
kind of opposition in the works than we are by these people."
For Dale Gieringer, long-time head of California NORML
opposition to Prop 19 inside the marijuana community is overstated, but
could impact the election result in a tight race. "It's a tempest in a
teapot, a minority of a minority," said Geiringer. "But this looks like
it's going to be a very close election, so it's possible they could
affect the outcome."
Despite the heated rhetoric and venom on display in recent weeks, both
sides should treat each other with respect, he said. "There are too many
people casting aspersions about others' intentions in this," Gieringer
said. "There are good people on both sides of Prop 19. There are some
very dedicated supporters of legal marijuana who simply do not like the
wording of Prop 19 for one reason or another."
But not voting for Prop 19 is the wrong choice, said Gieringer. "Some
will conscientiously not vote for something that's not to their taste,
but I don't think that's a wise thing to do in a close election. This
election is about do you favor legal marijuana or not, and all the other
concerns can be adjusted afterward," he said.
"They don't want to pay taxes, they're afraid it opens things up to big
business," said Gieringer. "Others think it doesn't go far enough, and
there are medical marijuana people who are afraid this will somehow
infringe on patients' rights under Prop 215 and Senate Bill 420. I don't
agree with that analysis."
Neither does Americans for Safe Access
(ASA), the country's largest medical marijuana defense group, and one
deeply rooted in the California medical marijuana scene. As a group
concentrating on medical marijuana, ASA is neutral on Prop 19, but, in
response to numerous questions from members and other interested
observers, ASA has created a Prop 19 FAQ
on its web site.
"Does Prop 19 hurt patients?" was the question. "No. While it is
possible there will be unanticipated consequences and legal controversy,
nothing in the text of Proposition 19 is designed to deny any rights to
medical cannabis patients," was ASA's answer.
"Does Prop 19 overrule the medical marijuana laws of California?" was
the question. "No. Proposition 19 is designed to, among other things,
'[p]rovide easier, safer access for patients who need cannabis for
medical purposes.' Although a statement of purpose is not necessarily
controlling, courts generally look to it in interpreting the statute's
language. The purpose of Proposition 19 is not to overturn Proposition
215 or any other state or local medical cannabis law," was ASA's answer.
"Will Prop 19 allow localities to ban medical marijuana dispensaries?"
was the question. "Unclear. Currently, there is no legal authority
stating that localities must regulate dispensaries under Proposition 215
and SB 420. Proposition 19 allows for local regulation of medical
cannabis sales, but also allows localities to ban such activity. If
Proposition 19 is adopted, it is unclear how the courts will integrate
both laws with respect to dispensaries," was ASA's answer.
It is worth noting that many California communities already ban
dispensaries. Other, more medical marijuana friendly, locales regulate
and tax them.
"People are concerned when voters are considering something so similar
to a right already afforded them and that a new law might somehow
restrict those rights," said ASA spokesman Kris Hermes. "There are many
questions unanswered, especially around the issue of distribution. We're
fighting right now to prevent local governments from adopting bans
against distribution. Given that Prop 19 allows for wet and dry
localities, and because we haven't completely ironed out the issue of
whether local governments can ban medical marijuana distribution, this
could infringe on those rights, especially if courts side with law
enforcement against having a patchwork of different rules for different
counties," Hermes said.
"There are also entrepreneurs who see their business being threatened by
a huge influx of legal marijuana," said Hermes. "For some people, there
is definitely a financial interest at stake, but ASA doesn't feel that
should be a reason to oppose the initiative."
"What's not so clear is whether local governments might not have more
power to tax, regulate, and potentially ban medical marijuana
collectives," said CANORML's Gieringer. "The initiative gives very
strong authority to local governments to do such things. It's not clear
what their authority is now. Many patients feel that, under current law,
local governments have to accept collectives and maybe dispensaries. My
reading is that that is not required by Prop 215, but might arguably be
required by SB 420. But SB 420 is a statute and can be changed by the
legislature at any time. I wouldn’t be surprised if they start tinkering
around next year regardless of Prop 19. But the stronger the vote Prop
19 gets, the stronger the position of both patients and other users next
On November 3, regardless of the intricacies of the arguments over Prop
19, the rest of the world is going to wake up to a headline from
California. Is it going to be "California Legalizes Marijuana" or is it
going to be "California Rejects Marijuana Legalization?" California
voters have 27 days to decide.