One of the biggest conclusions I have drawn about the 2010 Midterm Elections is that no party or group can ever win a strategic victory amongst the United States electorate. Although the media need for narratives, elections in the United States often come down to very small margins. In the four elections between 1992 and 2004, only one Presidential candidate got a majority of the vote--- George W Bush's whopping 50.6% in 2004. Neither party seems to be able to capture much over 50% of the vote for its agenda. And yet, while the parties see-saw over which is the 51-49 favorite to rule, political and social change happens in America below the surface, based on an almost unanimous changing of social views and attitudes.
And this brings us to California's Proposition 19, a measure to totally legalize marijuana. Medical marijuana is already legal in 14 states, and in many of those states, it is close to being de facto legalized. In my small, conservative, rural town in Montana, there is a dispensary on main street with a big picture of a marijuana leaf. And in California, where the measure in question was held, marijuana is even more widely accepted. This should hardly be a surprise: we are reaching a time when not only have most people smoked marijuana, or at least been around it, but so did their parents. And grandparents. Perhaps this is a west coast view, but smoking marijuana has been, for several decades, a normal rite of passage. Which is not to say that people whole-heartedly approve of it, but no one I know would be shocked or offended to find out that their friends have smoked marijuana at some point, or still do. And I can't imagine anyone who would want their friends, or family members, to go to jail for what is generally considered a somewhat harmless, if stupid activity.
One of the charges against medical marijuana would be that it would be a slippery slope into eventual decriminalization and legalization. This might be a fair charge, but if so, it is a double-edged one. If marijuana really does lead to the severe consequences that some would have us believe, wouldn't having it more widely available make people less likely to believe in legalization? And yet, almost 15 years after marijuana was first legalized for medical use in California, there have been no dire consequences of doing so. Not that the medical marijuana industry isn't perfect, but over a decade of easily available marijuana has not caused wide-spread social chaos.
And so, when Proposition 19, which would legalize, regulate and tax marijuana, went on the ballot, it seemed like it had a good chance of passing. Early polls showed it with a slight majority of voter support. There were some big questions about the act. For one thing, marijuana would still be illegal under federal law, so growers of marijuana would still be liable to federal arrest and trial. For another, very few big name politicians could come out in support of the measure, especially in a year when both parties were in a tight race for control of California. There was also some people who guessed that the areas of California most involved in growing marijuana would actually vote against the measure, since fully legalized marijuana would wreck their economies. Over time, support for the measure slipped.
On election day, the vote came back 46% in favor, 54% against. The support was centered around the Bay Area and down the Central Coast. Surprisingly enough, the predictions about the North Coast area were true, they voted against the measure, and the only real explanation for this is that they wanted to protect their economy. Throughout the state, the measure seemed to not vary too much in its support. In Fresno County, in the conservative Central Valley, it got around 35% support. In Marin County, it got over 60% support, fulfilling stereotypes. Overall, although it failed, it did not fail badly. Before, I said that many American elections are won by 51% of the vote, which is not a sign of strong consensus. And even though this measure only won 46% of the vote, I still believe that the idea behind it, that people shouldn't be punished for the use of marijuana, is growing to the point of being a matter of social consensus.
What I believe will happen is that as the demographic reality of acceptance of marijuana grows (when we get to the point where no one can remember a time when marijuana was socially unacceptable), and when there is an election that has a younger profile than this year's midterm election, another measure such as this one will pass. Of course, it will still be against federal law. But once the voters have expressed their wishes, it will give mainstream politicians their fig leaf. They can still disapprove of marijuana, but they can approve of its legalization because the voters have expressed that wish. I also suspect this will happen fairly quickly and almost predictably. Because while partisan elections are a matter of see-sawing and maneuvering, social views often proceed slowly but surely in one direction.
Map of the California returns by county.