Marijuana Legalizers Should Have Waited For Their Hit

The air in California is full not of smoke but of spin -- from advocates of marijuana legalization trying to explain that the defeat of Prop 19, the initiative to tax and legalize cannabis, is a victory in disguise.

If you believe that, well, I might ask what you've been smoking.

In the cold light of the post-election morning, Prop 19 looks like a strategic mistake that produced an unnecessary defeat for a movement that has made great progress over the past 20 years, particularly in California. Prop 19 proponents managed to lose a vote on legalization in a state in which polls show that a majority of voters are comfortable with legalization.

So what was the problem? Prop 19's proponents -- who are associated with the pot industry training school known as Oaksterdam University in downtown Oakland -- should have listened to more established parts of the marijuana movement that counseled waiting until 2012 to put such an initiative on the ballot.

By holding the vote in an off-year election like 2010, Prop 19's proponents created an uphill battle for themselves. Young voters, who are more likely to support the measure, are less likely to turn out in such elections. The measure itself was open-ended and raised too many questions for voters; more vetting of the initiative would have been helpful.

And the movement also could have benefited from having two years to build a coalition, figure out how to better square legalization with federal law, and seek more support from across the political spectrum. Instead, the campaign seemed rushed and disorganized.

Prop 19 also was under-funded. For a major change in social policy, proponents probably need $20 million for advertisements that can change public opinion and reach people who don't think much about marijuana.

By rushing onto the ballot, the movement produced a defeat that may make it harder to pass a similar measure in 2012 or 2014. Many voters may think that they considered the issue once before, and be less open to arguments in the future. And in the face of a popular rejection of the idea, even legislators who might be inclined to support marijuana legalization will be less likely to stick their necks out and support legislation in this area.

If you want to legalize marijuana, the lesson of the Prop 19 campaign is this: Sometimes it's worthwhile waiting for your hit.

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