October 28, 2010

California’s International Proposition

Uncertainty is a legitimate cause for fear. That which is uncertain entails risk and humans, despite a fascination with risk, thrive on routine and safety. Legalizing production and consumption of small amounts of marijuana in California, in accordance with the upcoming Proposition 19, will disrupt routine. No one agrees by how much either.

Ambiguity plagues Prop 19. The knock on Richard Lee’s bill, organized from Oakland, California, is that it leaves every detail to local interpretation. The wording, along with marijuana's general controversy, has chased away mainstream politicians like Senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein and San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom. It’s true that drug laws would benefit from universality over a patch-work of local interpretations, while still allowing for individual variances.

Lee is also ticking to his own watch. Politico reports that major political and financial backers advised Lee to delay his push until the 2012 presidential elective cycle, expecting Democrats to turn out in larger numbers while anticipating a GOP comeback in 2010. Lee believed the opportunity couldn’t wait. As a result Prop 19’s fund-raising hit a wall, with the billionaire quartet of George Soros, John Sperling, Peter Lewis, and Bob Wilson all staying neutral. Each is presumably gun-shy after supporting Prop 5, a 2008 decriminalization bill, and watching it fall short at 40%.

Nor can the effects on economics, crime, or Mexico’s war against drug cartels be measured with accuracy. A RAND report scared away undecided voters after theorizing a 300% drop in prices and 80% spike in use, undermining one of Prop 19’s main selling points. Proponents claim up to $1.4 billion could be taxed off an estimated $12 billion market, while opponents argue that reduced prices could yield what RAND estimated as a negligible $300 million. Cannabis tourism would have to offset the loss, leading to new potential hazards.

And the cartels, rather than losing one of their income sources, might establish legal growing operations. A later RAND report concluded that only 2-4% of the cartels’ revenue would be erased by domestic marijuana, and that California’s crop would have to spread nation-wide to begin eating into the cartels’ revenue. This leads to the dilemma of other states feeling California’s potentially unwanted effects.

These factors and more have triggered fluctuating poll numbers. With summer support hovering between 49%, 50%, and 52%, Prop 19 appeared headed for a tight vote until federal warnings dropped polls into the mid-40s. As usual the controversy of marijuana itself adds to uncertainty. A general consensus has formed to explain why automated polls consistently yield higher support than human questionnaires: voters respond with more honestly to a machine when discussing currently illegal activities.

Varying poll figures and a lack of funding have spiraled into a negative loop. With financiers awaiting a conclusive signal to jump in, Prop 19’s minimal advertising could jeopardize voter turnout. It’s understandable why public figures wouldn’t chance their fortune and reputation on an uncertain outcome, but uncertainty also happens to be the main reason to support Prop 19. Californians can’t be that unaware of the bill.

For advocates, now is the time to push hardest and breach the tipping point. George Soros realized this and held back his million until the final stretch.

In a manner fitting of the drug in question, the unknown justifies experimentation. Humans must test and evaluate new ways forward, whether politically, scientifically, socially, or artistically. Invention is especially applicable to a problem in need of a solution, such as a continental supply chain orchestrated by Mexican cartels exploiting America’s unregulated drug market. Some entity must clarify legalization by experimenting and observing what happens, and no test-range is better suited than California.

Prop 19 isn’t exactly surrounded by negativity either. While the precise figure of marijuana advocates remains a mystery, the optimistic view of California’s divided populace is that nearly 50% favor legalization as the most popular option of control. (Nation-wide appeal is up too.) Many negative editorials in the state media begin by placating those in favor of Prop 19, arguing that the bill’s wording, not the principle or timing, is the problem. Health benefits will rival the disadvantages. Tourism and its all-encompassing economics could generate more revenue than a straight tax on marijuana.

And though use will surely rise, society is likely to absorb the change since many people already have access to the drug. Long-term trends suggest a majority will be reached in 2012 or beyond if not 2010.

Those taking a wider view of Prop 19 - national politicians and states eying similar laws - have long seen California as the first domino to fall. Washington, Oregon, Colorado, and New York are monitoring Prop 19’s blueprint and outcome in 2012 with thoughts of improving on the bill. Regardless of whether state laws are actually enforceable over federal law, California would launch a movement to shake up the status quo lingering over the “War on Drugs.” Legalization may not be the answer either, but this “war” has been acknowledged as a failure by US and international leaders alike.

As California moves at the forefront of America’s liberalization, the US itself lags behind Europe and South America’s progression of treating drugs as a civil rights and public health issue. Former South American heads of state regularly advocate decriminalization or legalization, having witnessed firsthand the lack of progress in the “War on Drugs." The scale has successfully increased from Portugal to the Czech Republic (and many other European states), to Argentina, Mexico, and Brazil, all of which relaxed substance laws in the last decade. Canada could be next.

California could tip a lot of dominoes.

And beyond consumer tourism California would also play host to the international community, attracting policy makers and scientists to study Prop 19’s long-term effects. Universities could enter a new phase of medical research later disclosed at conferences hosted in California’s many major cities. Since the findings would influence further states and sub-states, California would be problem-solving even if its experiment fails.

Failure can be of great use to civilization’s advance.

California’s future is most accurately viewed through an international lens. America, the biggest user, is considered the last major obstacle and now California finds itself positioned simultaneously at the rear and vanguard of liberalization, the missing link to the outside world. America needs a location to export an international movement trending towards decriminalization and legalization. California is the perfect forum.

Mexican President Felipe Calderón has even called for a proper debate on the issue, conceding that security forces are inflaming the war. However Calderón did flip flop on the issue, a recent development that requires its own focus. And President Barack Obama doesn’t sound like he’ll be signing up for the debate. Instead US Attorney General Eric Holder declared war on Prop 19 and anyone who potentially abides by it.

"We will vigorously enforce the (federal law) against those individuals and organizations that possess, manufacture or distribute marijuana for recreational use, even if such activities are permitted under state law,” he warned in early October.

True to form Washington has only offered a wall. Californians must topple America's first domino themselves.

[Note: This analysis was completed last week. Current analysis soon.]

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