One Toke Over the Line

I know the law won’t be forgivin’,
But that’ll be the choice I made,
I used to farm for a livin’,
And now I’m in the growin’ trade.
— Levon Helm/Larry Campbell, “Growin’ Trade”

California’s Proposition 19, formally known as the “Regulate, Control & Tax Cannabis Act,” was a ballot initiative that would have legalized diverse kinds of marijuana-related activities and permitted local governments to tax the sale of the drug.  Despite early poll results showing that a majority approved of the initiative, it was rejected by voters on election day last week, 54 to 46 percent.

Contrary to the prevailing meme that everything political in the United States is predictably conservative or liberal, red state or blue, the story of Prop 19 is the story, among other things, of unexpected alliances and media diversity, and proof that complex issues can be covered in ways that do justice to that fact.

Powerful arguments, both pro and con, can be and were made in the debate over the initiative.  Those who favored it argued that it would yield an important new source of revenue in a state that is on its financial uppers; that it would result in significant savings due to the smaller number of individuals incarcerated for marijuana-related offenses; and that it would do damage to the Mexican drug cartels that provide much of the marijuana used by Californians and others.

Those who were opposed to Proposition 19 argued that it would not yield the financial benefits advertised; that it would greatly increase marijuana consumption with concomitant ill effects all around; and that it was made unnecessary by the earlier passage, and signing into law, of S.B. 1449, which decriminalized the possession of less than an ounce of marijuana.

Further complicating the matter, and an aspect of the initiative used in argument by the opposition, is the fact that, whatever California law might be on the subject, federal law makes possession a crime, thereby conjuring up an image of California cops looking the other way as federal agents continue to make arrests in the state.

Which is just to say that much of the debate about Prop 19 turned on the perceived strengths and weaknesses of specific aspects of the initiative, rather than on the larger question of whether citizens could or should be allowed to grow and use marijuana at all – a perspective perhaps mooted by the fact that a great many Californians are growing and using even now.

As drafted, the initiative would have allowed Californians to cultivate, for their personal use, 25 square feet of marijuana in their back yards, but enforcement, regulation, and taxation would be left up to the state’s 478 cities and 58 counties.  What confusion might result, some wondered, when abutting jurisdictions had different laws and regulations?  If, for instance, the standard was 25 square feet in one town but 30 in another, might this not make matters confusing for law enforcement?  Not only would they need to know at all times the different marijuana laws of abutting jurisdictions, but in busting the perps they’d need tape measures as well as guns and handcuffs.  Or what about the guy who scoped out his marijuana garden while using the product, such that it came out not to 25 square feet but 25 square yards?  (Well, that dude could just kiss his sweet cannabis goodbye.)

So anyhow, in this as in other ways, it isn’t easy being a Californian.  Their difficulties were compounded not just by the complexities inherent in Prop 19, but also by the unfamiliar alliances. Much of the state’s Democratic Party organizations (and all of the Libertarian organizations) came out in support of the initiative, but all of the major party candidates for statewide office – Republican and Democrat – opposed it.  (Even in San Francisco, for instance, Nancy Pelosi opposed the measure, while her Republican opponent supported it.)

Happy to report, this strange-bedfellows phenomenon extended even to the state’s leading newspapers.  Though there were some, like the San Diego Union, which editorialized in familiar ways (“No to ganja madness”), there were many who took what might seem like unexpected positions on the subject.  The conservative Orange County Register, for instance, though never taking an official position on the initiative, twice ran editorials that clearly leaned in favor of Prop 19.

Meanwhile, the more liberal Los Angeles Times and San Francisco Chronicle, along with the Sacramento Bee and the Mercury News, came out in opposition to the measure.  In all events, though, the truly encouraging thing about the media coverage is the thoroughness of it.  Despite the many complexities and competing views, the state’s newspapers did a good job of providing their readers with a comprehensive understanding of the nature and potential consequences of the initiative, intended and unintended alike.

That the vote went the way it did is a subject about which honest people can disagree, but there is something deeply refreshing about media coverage of a complex issue in which journalists and editorialists provide a window on all points of view, and illuminate the best arguments of the competing parties.  Were that the standard practice with respect to media coverage of all complex issues, journalism would enjoy a spike in its reputation and the nation would be better served.

The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not necessarily of The Media Institute, its Board, contributors, or advisory councils.