California has drawn a lot of attention in the past because of its initiative and referendum system, which gets controversial issues on the ballot so that the voters of the state can make decisions their elected representatives are often afraid to take a position on. We’re going to see more fireworks this fall when Californians get to vote on Proposition 19, the Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis Act of 2010.
There are some rules and restrictions, but basically the proposed bill does exactly what the title says. It would legalize marijuana, regulate its sale, and tax it heavily to help out with California’s near-terminal deficit situation. It would make California the first state in the nation to move beyond just permitting some access to medical marijuana to full-scale and potentially profitable legalization. The other obvious consequences, like a decline in organized crime and moving billions from the underground economy to the public economy, would naturally follow.
Polls in California are tracking the issue closely and show a gathering momentum for legalization, though support is currently trailing opposition 48% to 50% in the latest Reuters poll. That’s within the margin of error and up substantially from where support was only a few weeks ago.
Because it’s not an electoral slam-dunk, politicians are not exactly lining up to endorse Proposition 19. In fact, once and (possibly) future Governor Jerry Brown has gone out of his way to distance himself from the issue, not only not endorsing it, but making some ridiculous statements in opposition to it which have earned him some hostile coverage from the left. It seems likely that in the upcoming meeting of the California Democratic Party they will follow his lead and decide as a party not to endorse legalization as well. They’ll lose voters to the Greens and the Libertarians and Meg Whitman will benefit as a result, and maybe having a businesswoman in charge will help out the financially troubled state.
Of course, this situation does create an opportunity for anyone smart enough to take advantage of it. The proposition is growing in popularity and just hanging out there with no formal backing outside of the legalization activist community. Wouldn’t it be amazing if the California Republican Party—which has occasionally made some very radical and unexpected decisions—were to take a serious look at the state’s dire financial need and the potential benefits of legalization and decide to endorse Proposition 19?
This scenario was laid out in a recent diary on DailyKos, which more than a few Republicans I talked to read and took seriously. Some were shocked and others were excited. The article is sarcastic and intended to make fun of various Republican concerns, but it accidentally reads rather like a believable account of real events. It’s fashionable among Republicans to butt heads with the federal government right now, and going against the drug war and declaring a sovereign right to regulate marijuana and profit from taxes on it would be a brilliant example of the kind of independence which a lot of Republican activists are pushing for.
Republicans are supposed to be fiscal conservatives and in favor of individual liberty, entrepreneurs, and businesses. A measure like this, which would raise billions in tax revenue and create a huge new business sector and lots of legitimate jobs, is exactly what California needs desperately, and no one is offering them a better solution. Rationally, Republicans ought to jump at the idea. All they need to do is put aside the archaic idea that marijuana is somehow more immoral than other sins we currently tolerate — a stance which looks pretty hypocritical at a political fundraiser while you’re chugging martinis.
As it stands right now the issue is up to the fickle voters and how much interest groups on both sides can influence the public (I wonder if the drug cartels have a PAC?). But if the Republican party stepped in with even a lukewarm endorsement it would shake California politics up and probably give them an unprecedented sweep in the general election. Voters from the left would cross over in droves and all the Republican party would have to do is make sure the also held on to their core constituents.
All they have to do to keep Republicans on board is make the argument on the grounds of states’ rights, individual liberty, and fiscal responsibility. I’ve made that argument with some of the most traditional Republicans I know and won over more than a few converts. If your mind is at all open it’s hard to reject the logic behind legalizing marijuana as an alternative to raising taxes. If it also means thumbing your noses at the feds then in the current environment it’s a real winner.
The California GOP doesn’t have to be this creative. They can stay in their safe little box and probably do respectably in the fall. It won’t be all that hard to beat Governor Moonbeam again. But in other states Republicans are anticipating extraordinary victories. A cautious strategy will leave California far behind other state Republican parties in the gains they rack up. Seizing the initiative and endorsing Proposition 19 would drive them to such a dominant victory over the Democrats that they would make history and leave every other state party green with envy.
Desperate times call for desperate measures and setting timidity aside. Why not be bold? Why not be defiant? Why not strike a blow for liberty?