Content, Domestic, Election, Issue — December 9, 2010 at 5:09 am

Grassroots?

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In the Silicon Valley town of Los Gatos, California, many residents work in the headquarters of high-tech companies such as Google, Apple, and Facebook. The town boasts a median family income of $150,000 and is known for its upscale housing developments, which even now sell for $1 million a piece on average. The town is also a hotspot for marijuana-related violence.

In 2005, police officers entered a violent gunfight on a marijuana farm atop Los Gatos’ Mount Umunhum. The police warden from Mountain View, California, was shot in the leg, and other officers were also injured. Terrance Helm, a spokesman from the Santa Clara County Sherriff Department, expressed his alarm: “It makes no sense… They generally don’t shoot it out with the cops.” In 2008, police officers faced a similar situation during a raid of a marijuana farm in the hills between Los Gatos and Saratoga, where they encountered another shootout. Luckily there were no injuries that time. Stories like these pervade suburbia as the fight against marijuana grows more violent daily. Marijuana violence has begun to resonate with many of the wealthy suburban individuals who have become strong proponents of marijuana legalization.

The intensity of the War on Drugs was an important issue in the 2010 midterm elections. In California, Proposition 19, which would have legalized personal consumption of marijuana for anyone over the age of 21, failed by eight points. Yet it received more “yes” votes than Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman, who spent $160 million on her campaign (as opposed to the $4 million spent on the “Yes on 19″ campaign). Although Proposition 19 received numerous votes, and the support of many wealthy individuals, including George Soros and hedge fund manager Peter Thiel, it failed to gain the grassroots support of the two groups that many expected to favor legalization – students and minority populations.

The failure of Proposition 19 marks new development in the history of legalizing cannabis. The 2010 proposition was similar to a 1972 referendum, also called Proposition 19, which would have legalized marijuana had it not been rejected by 66.5 percent of voters. Today we face a different situation. For one, medical marijuana prescriptions are easily obtained through specialized physicians who are often proponents of legalization. Furthermore, 13 states as well as the District of Columbia have realized that marijuana is not as harmful as has been thought and have decriminalized the drug. Time magazine wrote last month in an article titled “How Marijuana Got Mainstreamed” that although it has been a taboo in the past, marijuana has risen to “take its place innocently on Americans’ infinite menu of lifestyle preferences.” All of this has led to a decreasing disparity between those who do and don’t support legalization: this time , only 54 percent of Californians rejected the proposition to legalize pot.

However, the growing support for marijuana legalization raises important questions about why the California proposition failed. Statistician Nate Silver, founder of the polling aggregation website FiveThirtyEight.com, notes that the fate of such socially sensitive ballot measures is often decided by the views of various racial demographics. This is especially true given the pervasive racial profiling in drug arrests in California and the rest of the nation. According to the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, African Americans, who make up approximately 7 percent of the California state population, accounted for 33 percent of all marijuana felony arrests in the state. Similarly, a report done by the Drug Policy Institute found that in major cities in California, Latinos were arrested for marijuana possession at nearly triple the rate at which whites were arrested in those cities. These disproportionate arrest rates are not explained by marijuana usage rates. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that from 2002 to 2007, Latinos and African Americans consistently used marijuana less than the white population. The disparity between usage rates and arrest rates has exacerbated the problem of racial profiling in marijuana-related arrests.

Although this profiling is known to be rampart, especially in California, voters from the various racial populations who were most affected by the inequities in the California justice system did not vote as one would have expected them to in November. Even before the elections, a poll conducted by the Pew Research Center found that 57.5 percent of African Americans and 63 percent of Latinos are against the legalization of marijuana, whereas 54 percent of whites are against it. Although these statistics are surprising, analysts believed that they were skewed due to the natural bias found in polls taken on socially sensitive issues. The true surprise came when these racial groups actually voted along these lines in the November elections, thereby solidifying their stance against marijuana legalization.

There are several reasons for this seemingly unnatural occurrence in the elections. For one, the proponents of the proposition positioned it in a way that moved it away from party lines and, instead, played it as a social issue that had implications beyond simply increasing money received from taxes. Because the debate became centered on the social issue of marijuana, many black and Latino churches that have consistently opposed marijuana consumption stepped in to take control of the debate. Bishop Ron Allen of the International Faith Based Coalition identifies himself as a former drug addict whose trials with marijuana led him down a slippery slope to crack cocaine. Eleven sober years later, his story serves as the foundation behind his campaign against Proposition 19.

A divide was created in the black community when Alice Huffman, the president of NAACP’s California branch, took a stance in favor of Proposition 19. She argued in favor of civil rights and against racial profiling in drug arrests. However, Huffman’s efforts did not stand a chance against Bishop Allen’s coalition of pastors. The bishop has responded directly to claims that legalizing pot will reduce racial discrimination in drug arrests by arguing that “it is a ridiculous thought to advocate for blacks to stay high, and believe that incarceration is going to go down. How can you educate an intoxicated mind?” The New York Times commented on the religious campaign against Proposition 19, noting that pastors often used “fiery language to rally a small crowd… describing marijuana as ‘the most sinister drug,’ and asking that ‘the demonic spirits be cast back to hell.’” Bishop Allen and various other pastors took advantage of Proposition 19′s position as a social issue and rallied behind them the majority of their racial community.

Their arguments were supplemented by a study done by RAND Corporation that was cited and circulated by the New York Times. The study, which examined the probable effects of marijuana legalization, found that if Proposition 19 were passed and pot legalized in California, prices (which would no longer be subjected to the high premiums found in underground drug markets) would fall by 80 percent. Researchers believe that this significant price drop will cause in increase in marijuana consumption by at least 50 percent to 100 percent or more. This statistic, coupled with the impassioned stories and arguments made by Bishop Allen and various other pastors, incited religious racial minority communities to reject the proposition.

Another reason the proposition failed was that California’s major newspapers’ editorial boards, including the Sacramento Bee, Los Angeles Times, and San Diego Union Tribune, took stands against the proposition. Articles discussed the implications of this specific proposition rather than the general value of legalizing marijuana. The San Diego Union-Tribune pointed out that the proposition would create a taxing and regulation fiasco, as each of California’s cities would be entitled to its “own regulation and tax schemes for the cultivation, processing, distribution, transportation and sale of marijuana.” The Los Angeles Times editorial provided a similar argument, noting that “the proposition is an invitation to chaos.” The arguments of these newspapers were corroborated by those of various university newspapers. A day before the midterm election, The Daily Bruin of UCLA wrote, “The most concerning aspect of Proposition 19 is the lack of foresight and planning for enforcement. In short, it is self-defeating.” Even the very socially liberal UCSC newspaper City On A Hill mentions that “Prop 19 doesn’t set up any formal regulatory system which means it’ll be the Wild West of drugs until local governments create a patchwork of laws to fix it.” The obviously flawed proposition’s failure to gain support from major newspapers in California affected the vote from not only the masses who follow these newspapers, but also students who were aware of the bureaucratic drawbacks of the proposition.

However, these issues were secondary to funders of Proposition 19, including wealthy individuals who are proponents of marijuana legalization. Investor and philanthropist George Soros’ highly publicized last minute contribution of $1 million to the campaign exemplified the way the campaign received most of its money: from wealthy white individuals who advocated the legality of marijuana usage. Top donors to the campaign included Peter Lewis, another major donor to medical marijuana initiatives in the past; Sean Parker, an entrepreneur known for co-founding Napster; entrepreneur Phil Harvey; and Peter Thiel, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist and hedge fund manager.

While support from these individuals was helpful in garnering support from the constituency in the Silicon Valley and the rest of the San Francisco Bay Area, where they have substantial influence, it did little to cultivate widespread support.

In George Soros’ article in the Wall Street Journal titled “Why I Support Legal Marijuana,” he writes that marijuana must be legalized due to the racial inequities in enforcement of current laws. As seen previously, this point failed to resonate with the racial populations to which it pertained. Furthermore, Soros claims that legalizing marijuana would open up our budget to the possibility of more drug education. This argument failed to resonate with the masses, especially after the circulation of RAND Corporation’s study. It is difficult to believe that a proposition that would significantly increase drug consumption would also be conducive to higher drug education standards. Because of these arguments’ failure to take hold beyond the wealthy Silicon Valley individuals who were not actually affected by them, Proposition 19 was unable to gain much support outside the Bay Area.

In the past, Californians have been known to pass liberal propositions that have undermined federal authority and set precedents for other states. For example, California Proposition 215 in 1996 legalized medical marijuana and caused another 13 states to follow suit. However, a proposition that would bring about significant symbolic change to our nation’s drug policy needs to be well thought out, and then implemented effectively. While George Soros and other significant donors claimed that “regulating and taxing marijuana would simultaneously save taxpayers billions of dollars in enforcement and incarceration costs, while providing many billions of dollars in revenue annually,” many voters sided instead with the editorial boards of local newspapers, which did an effective job of outlining the propositions’ pitfalls.

In coming elections, there will inevitably be new propositions to legalize marijuana. When those propositions come, their proponents would do well to remember the lessons of California: One cannot support a proposition this large and contested, even among those one would expect as allies, with funding and official support from only limited populations in limited regions. Presuppositions of support will be the death of such initiatives. To receive the vote of African Americans and Latinos, proponents of marijuana legalization must make a sustained effort to involve community leaders in the fight for legalization. Furthermore, to gain the support of groups that are doubtful about the effectiveness of legalization, a proposition must be written coherently. Legalization may require time. Even if California sets a precedent, its laws will not be respected by the federal government unless other states follow suit. It is now time for proponents of such a statute to focus on more effective implementation in order to provide the United States with a new view on marijuana’s place in our failing war against drugs.

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