When Will California Legalize Pot? 

Now that Colorado and Washington have done it, California reformers are eyeing 2014 or 2016 for another ballot initiative — but their optimism is laced with caution.

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But Zimmerman and Reiman think there is enough objective data on California voter preferences to enable reform groups to agree on ballot language this time around. Even if the most extreme examples of "stoners against legalization" don't agree with new drugged driving laws or caps on home-growing, the extremists "pale in comparison to people like moms in their thirties in Southern California" who voted against Prop 19, Reiman noted.

Indeed, the gender gap over pot legalization remains strong — and that's true throughout the nation. According to the Quinnipiac poll, American men support legalization, 59 percent to 36 percent, but women oppose it, 52 percent to 44 percent.

The age gap remains persistent as well. Nationwide, residents 65 and older strongly oppose legalization, 56 percent to 35 percent, according to the Quinnipiac poll. By contrast, younger voters adamantly support it. Those aged 18 to 29 want pot legalized, 67 percent to 29 percent, and those aged 30 to 44 support it, 58 percent to 39 percent. In the 45-64 age group, 48 percent support marijuana legalization compared to 47 percent who oppose it. "It seems likely," said Peter A. Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, "that, given the better than 2-1 majority among younger voters, legalization is just a matter of time."

For many pot legalization reformers, however, that time is not 2014. The California electorate is different in nonpresidential years, Zimmerman noted. Republicans tend to come out in force in the off years, while Democrats stay home. Historically, off-year elections have given us Republican Governors Ronald Reagan, Pete Wilson, George Deukmejian, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. And a whopping 69 percent of California Republicans said "no" to pot legalization in a May 2012 Los Angeles Times poll. "There are going to be people tempted by 2014; I think that would be a disaster," Zimmerman said. "It could be another rebuke, which would make it much more difficult to pass an initiative in 2016."

But waiting for the youth vote and Democrats in 2016 isn't a sure thing, either, particularly when California's top Democratic leaders remain opposed to pot legalization, including US Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer and Governor Jerry Brown.

And part of the reason Californians haven't moved further on legalization may be due to the turmoil surrounding medical marijuana in the state. Brown went on CNN after the election to say the Obama administration should respect states' rights with regard to pot laws, but he also said California's system has seen "abuses."

"We've got a medical marijuana dispensary situation which is a mess," said Zimmerman. "If we can't clean that up and show the public that we're capable in California of running marijuana distribution with medical patients, I'm not sure that they're going to allow us to create a marijuana distribution system for recreational users."

The California Supreme Court also has yet to rule on the legality of dispensaries, or a city's right to ban them. San Francisco Assemblyman Tom Ammiano will reintroduce a medical marijuana industry regulation bill next year, Reiman said, but Sacramento legislators have been worried about touching what they view as an electric third rail in state politics.

There's also the possibility that pot already might be legal enough for many Californians. When he was in office, Schwarzenegger signed San Francisco legislator Mark Leno's bill, making simple possession an infraction. Since then, juvenile arrests for pot have plummeted to their lowest levels since record-keeping began in the 1950s. In addition, most adult residents can get a medical recommendation for weed, and dispensaries and delivery services abound. According to RAND, the most common price Americans pay for pot is $0. The reason? People typically receive it as a gift from friends.

There are two big unknown factors that could change the equation at any time, though, and may have already begun to. Activists foresee a domino effect from legalization in Colorado and Washington that will move voter sentiment quickly. The fact that two states in the most powerful country on the planet legalized pot has taken the giggles out of the discussion. "This is truly unprecedented in modern history," said Kilmer of RAND.

The results of the Quinnipiac poll show that activists appear to be right and that American attitudes are changing rapidly. That seems to be true even among law enforcement officials. Earlier this month, the chief of the Indiana State Police went on a local radio show and endorsed legalization — an unprecedented move for a top cop in the Midwest. "I grew up in Indiana," said Reiman. "No one was more surprised than me to hear that statement."

"It's a huge deal," added Isaac Campos, a marijuana prohibition historian at the University of Cincinnati. "It may even prove to be the most important event of November 6. It's a monumental, watershed moment."

History, in fact, is replete with examples of political tipping points — moments in time when large numbers of people change their minds about a controversial issue. In addition to marijuana legalization, same-sex marriage appears to be at a political tipping point, too. In 2008, a Quinnipiac poll showed that Americans opposed gay marriage, 55 percent to 36 percent. But in just four years, the country's mood has shifted dramatically. Now, 48 percent of Americans support same-sex marriage, compared to 46 percent who oppose it. That's a seventeen-point swing.


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