PROP. 19: FIGHT OVER POT STARTS TO HEAT UP
No TV ads. No billboards. Just a lot of news conferences, endorsement announcements, mailings by special-interest groups and phone calls to voters.
That’s what the battle has consisted of so far in the campaigns around the lowest-key, highest-interest election issue on the Nov. 2 ballot – Proposition 19, which would legalize personal marijuana use for adults. And that’s pretty much the game plan from here to the end.
The very subject of legalizing marijuana has been in the public discourse for so many decades that many people apparently have their minds made up already, observers and combatants say. So the main challenge has been to fire up the converted on both sides, while educating voters in the middle to shore up the margins.
A Public Policy Institute of California survey released Thursday showed 49 percent of Californians saying they would vote no on the measure, and 44 percent saying they’d vote yes. That’s a turnaround from a Field Poll last month that had Prop. 19 up, 49 percent to 42 percent. A smattering of smaller polls disagree on which side is ahead.
What this means, in the home stretch toward election day, is that Prop. 19 is still up for grabs.
“It’s probably going to be a squeaker one way or another,” said Tom Angell, media director for Prop. 19.
“Our message is harder to get out, because it’s got a little more complexity, but we’re making headway,” said Roger Salazar, spokesman for the No on Prop. 19 effort. “The other side is working overtime to generate some press, and so are we.”
The most striking thing about the campaign is the lack of the advertisements, even though polls indicate Prop. 19 is by far the most recognizable measure on the ballot. It’s also been drawing international headlines because it would make California the first place in the United States to legalize recreational pot.
“We’re seeing lots of ads for everything else on the ballot, aren’t we? But not Prop. 19,” said Martin Carcieri, a political science professor at San Francisco State University. “It tells us that this is such a touchy subject you have to be careful.
“That, plus neither side has a ton of money, and ads are expensive.”
It generally costs about $2 million a week to run television ads statewide in a California election, and so far neither campaign has been able to attract a lot of cash.
According to the California secretary of state’s office, the anti-Prop. 19 side had raised just $250,000 as of Friday. The measure’s proponents had pulled together $2.8 million, which could position them for a last-minute flurry of ads.
By contrast, more than $22 million has been raised by the pro and con sides around Proposition 24, which would repeal a number of tax breaks for big corporations.
The main weapons in the battle over Prop. 19 have been news coverage, endorsement announcements and opinion pieces in newspapers and on blogs. Representatives of both sides, including police, politicians and educators, have debated each other in hundreds of settings.
Each faction claims the most heat.
“People are really fired up about this all over the country,” Angell said. “We’ve got a huge bank of volunteers doing phone-bank work everywhere, and we’re on most campuses.
“The crucial thing for us is direct contact with the voters through the phones and outreach. We really do feel we can win this.”
About 1,000 volunteers from as far away as Denver’s Women’s Marijuana Movement have pitched in to spread the pro-pot message by phone to voters.
The proposition, drawn up by medical marijuana pioneer Richard Lee of Oakland, would allow local jurisdictions to legalize the possession of as much as an ounce of marijuana for recreational use by anybody 21 or older, and to tax pot sales. Each person could also grow the drug for personal use in anything up to a 5-by-5-foot space.
“I’ve always said that cannabis prohibition is hypocritical and unfair,” said Lee, who founded the Oaksterdam marijuana-trade school in Oakland. “This sort of law is overdue.”
On the flip side, anti-Prop. 19 activists say people don’t need to be convinced that a drug is a drug. It’s getting them to the polls that matters most.
“Prop. 19 isn’t really what it says it is – it will lead to a great deal of confusion, and it won’t stop crime,” said Pleasant Hill Police Chief Dunbar, spokesman for the California Police Chiefs Association. “Marijuana may be legalized one day, but this is not the way to do it.”
Salazar said his campaign’s message boils down to this: “Prop. 19 claims to regulate, tax and control marijuana, but it in fact does none of those things.” He said there would be a proliferation of people coming to work and driving while stoned, and that many sellers may refuse to pay local taxes because marijuana would still be illegal under federal law.
Several home-grown groups, such as Citizens Against Legalizing Marijuana, a self-started outfit of 15 in Sacramento, are spreading thousands of leaflets around the state to counteract the pro-Prop. 19 phone calls and campus crusades.
Neither side will say if it is planning last-minute TV or radio ads, but if they do the arguments would undoubtedly echo what has already made the proposition the most recognizable one on the ballot, Carcieri said.
Those for Prop. 19 argue that it would bring in billions to governmental coffers through taxes and fees and give people the freedom to use an herb they see as less harmful than liquor or tobacco. And those who oppose it say Prop. 19 would legitimize a dangerous drug that the federal government would still outlaw.
“Americans really do believe in personal liberty, and that’s part of why this proposition has gotten this far,” Carcieri said. “Of course, this is too much for even a lot of those who believe in personal liberty – but this time there is also the money argument.
“Without the desperate economic situation we have now, this wouldn’t be on the ballot.”