For a moment Proposition 19 was riding high. Despite a lack of high-level political support and mediocre fund-raising, California’s initiative to legalize and tax marijuana continued to flirt near 50% throughout summer polls. And the measure received a boost in early August when Mexican President Felipe Calderón, normally opposed to legalization, conceded that a systematic debate should be conducted.
During a round-table on Mexico’s security, Calderón accepted, “a fundamental debate in which I think, first of all, you must allow a democratic plurality [of opinions]…You have to analyze carefully the pros and cons and the key arguments on both sides.”
But Prop 19 has crashed back to Earth in October, with polls dipping into the low 40s. The battle has taken a predictably disturbing turn too. Washington’s reaction indicates that it’s deaf to criticism of a self-admitted failure of a drug war - an illogical position - and opposes representation or even discussion of legalization.
A civil rights issue at its core, Prop 19 has morphed into its inevitable final stage, transcending legalization into a conflict of democracy.
Both the rise and fall of Prop 19 synchronize to Calderón’s actions. Flip-flopping his tone, Calderón argued against Prop 19 in an October 7th interview with the Associated Press: "For me, it reflects a terrible inconsistency in government policies in the United States.” Nor was Calderón’s flip-flop a coincidence. Mexican officials have lobbied against Prop 19 throughout the month, believing it undermines their war on the drug cartels, and US officials have teamed up with foreign leaders to snuff out debate.
A week after Calderón’s remarks, US Attorney General Eric Holder cleared up President Barack Obama's position by warning, “We will vigorously enforce the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) against those individuals and organizations that possess, manufacture or distribute marijuana for recreational use, even if such activities are permitted under state law."
Calderón would pile it on thick in expectation of Holder’s reinforcement: "It's very sad to see how drug consumption is, little by little, tearing apart American society and, if we don't watch ourselves, it will tear apart ours.” Obviously drug consumption, even marijuana, poses various threats to US society. However marijuana has done no more harm than alcohol, obesity, prescription pills, or reality TV. The White House’s threat knocked the polls down anyway, as undecided voters decided the measure is more trouble than it’s worth.
That gray areas exist within Prop 19’s legislation, especially those pertaining to local regulation, schools, and taxation, is unarguable. Practically speaking, any bill designated for law should correct its flaws before approval, and Prop 19 would benefit from post-election editing. Unfortunately there hasn’t been much of a debate at all from Washington on how proceed, no engagement, only an attempt to snuff out the hope.
Californians haven’t just been told “no,” but also to keep silent.
George Soros, who held back funding until a last minute donation, recently wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “In many respects, of course, Proposition 19 already is a winner no matter what happens on Election Day. The mere fact of its being on the ballot has elevated and legitimized public discourse about marijuana and marijuana policy in ways I could not have imagined a year ago.” This statement reads true for Californians who’ve held a vigorous battle. Yet at a time when national debate is sorely needed, Washington seeks to deny representation, taxation, and explanation to its citizens.
The Obama administration visibly fears a national debate on legalization despite its self-proclaimed transparency. Facing a popular initiative and lacking persuasive arguments or conclusive data, the White House has resorted to what governments fall back to when surrounded: authoritarianism.
Ironically, Washington’s latest propaganda has exposed reality in a hopeful sign that truth still conquers all. A recent summit between the Tuxtla Group brought together several staunch US allies who proceeded to lash California for undermining Latin and South America’s war against cartels and traffickers. One could understand Juan Manuel Santos, Colombia’s new president, wanting to protect continuity with Washington, but his argument doesn’t make sense - until it rounds out.
"How can I tell a farmer in my country that if he grows marijuana, I'll put him in jail, when in the richest state of the United States it's legal to produce, traffic and consume the same product?" Santos asked in an interview broadcast Sunday by the Colombian radio station Caracol. "If we don't act consistently in this matter, if all we're doing is sending our citizens to prison while in other latitudes the market is legalized, then we should ask ourselves: Isn't it time to revise the global strategy toward drugs?"
This theme persisted throughout the summit. Shadowing Calderón’s criticism, who denounced Prop 19 as a “terrible inconsistency," President Laura Chinchilla of Costa Rica opposed the "contradictory message in the anti-drug fight" that "would put at risk the consistency of the anti-drug fight.” But the answer sits on a pedestal in front of them: reform Washington’s policy. California hasn’t sent mixed messages by taking into account a long-term trend towards liberalization - that would be the White House.
When President Obama took office opposed to legalization, he also signaled tacit approval for medicinal dispensaries in California. Over the last two years these stores have been mercilessly raided by federal agents. Drug czar Gil Kerlikowske made headlines in May by declaring the “War on Drugs” as a failure and stood by his statement before qualifying it and opposing legalization. He also wants to throw out the phrase “War on Drugs” because the government isn’t at war with its people, even though Holder’s statements amount to a declaration of war upon a yes vote.
And while US officials rebuke California for ignoring the consequences towards others, additional security on the US-Mexican border has rerouted a portion of the cartels’ cocaine into Europe via West Africa. A slow response to these evolving routes suggests that Washington doesn’t think through its consequences either.
US and South American officials acknowledge that the drug debate requires clarity and sorting out; now is the time to drop their fear games and apply their logic to themselves. A true debate should be held on Prop 19 between participants from the government, Californian representatives, Mexican and South American officials, and international observers in political, economic, health, and social fields. Each argument’s pros and cons, as Calderón says, should be weighed in the most unemotional vacuum possible. Both sides must enter open-minded, ready for compromise, and for defeat.
Perhaps Prop 19 would fail to dent the many problems it attempts to resolve. This outcome is acceptable so long as rational discourse and analysis prove that legalizing marijuana raises crime without cutting out the cartels or offering ulterior benefits. Or if the government could prove that its current strategy is working.
Yet inconclusive scientific evidence on both sides casts a vote for debate, not suppression, and the government seems more afraid of Prop 19’s success than its failure. Health benefits from marijuana have increased over time, remedying diseases such as arthritis and Alzheimer’s disease. For boomers marijuana offers the possibility of staying mentally younger, contrary to its perception as a brain killer. More proof of the fear that Washington perpetuates, Kerlikowske explained, “you want to be careful about having a strategy that is evidence-based and science-based. And I think there is a common belief that government has used scare tactics that perhaps weren’t supported as strongly as they could be.”
“On marijuana,” he says, “I think there’s a couple things that are of interest. One is, when I left Washington state, the No. 1 source of voluntary phone calls to a hot line for people with a substance abuse problem was for marijuana. There’s been a very steady and significant increase in potency. So in the strategy we have about the association of marijuana with dependency, we say that if you smoke pot and take a test the next day, guess what? You’re not going to do as well as somebody else.”
The alcohol argument has become cliche over the years, but it does remain without a definitive counter-argument. If you get drunk and hung-over the night before a test, “you’re not going to do as well as somebody else.”
Cartel funding, tax revenue, crime, tourism - all these topics lack verifiable answers. Though legalizing marijuana in California may not impact the cartels’ inflow, the battle against them should be waged through attrition by drying up all of its revenue streams over time. Even a modest tax would follow the same principle of nibbling away at California’s budget deficit. As for crime, an increase wouldn’t be unexpected but fears are likely overblown. Hundreds of thousands of relatively harmless transgressions could be avoided, with the savings going towards treatment programs. And because of the legal limit of alcohol, middle and high schoolers often find it harder to acquire beer than pot, which is freely available within schools.
Legalizing marijuana won’t necessarily make it easier to obtain.
No one is sure of Prop 19’s effects and uncertainty breeds fear; this explains the government’s reaction and reveals the solution. Instead of just saying no, hold a large-scale debate in the coming months to experiment with all areas of the issue. Legislators in charge of the bill must also redefine and clarify Prop 19, given that many Californians against the bill oppose the wording more than the principle.
As for Washington, to flatly answer in the negative isn’t just to oppose the bill in its current form, but a reformed bill as well. The White House apparently believes it can suppress a majority of Californians in 2010, 2012, and beyond - an impossibility. Prop 19 has outgrown itself.
Suffocating a debate on top of a vote penetrates to the heart of reason and free expression.