Come Nov. 3, California will either have become the first state to allow legal, regulated, taxed marijuana, or -- more likely, some political experts say -- it will have created a lot of heat and light without any smoke.
A couple of recent polls show flagging support for the pot measure.
The Public Policy Institute of California reported Wednesday only 44 percent of likely voters polled Oct. 10-17 intend to vote for Proposition 19 -- down 8 percentage points since September. -- with 49 percent opposed and 7 percent undecided. And a Los Angeles Times-University of Southern California poll, conducted Oct. 13-20 and released Friday found 51 percent of likely voters say they'll vote against Prop. 19, while only 39 percent will vote for it with 10 percent undecided or refusing to answer.
"The rule of thumb for ballot measures is unless you have close to 60 percent going in, the undecideds will flock disproportionately toward 'No.' If they haven't made up their minds by Election Day, they overwhelmingly vote no," said Larry Gerston, a political-science professor at San Jose State.
Prop. 19 would let people age 21 or older legally possess as much as an ounce of marijuana, and grow it in a space of up to 25 square feet. Cities and counties could choose whether to regulate and tax commercial production and sale. Possessing it on school grounds, using it in public, smoking it while minors are present or providing it to anyone under 21 would remain illegal, as would driving while impaired.
Legalization, according to supporters, would end a hypocritical and racially disproportionate ban on a drug less harmful than alcohol, while saving law enforcement costs, raising new tax revenue, and making it harder for kids to get marijuana. Those backers include the California branch of the NAACP, the state chapters of the American Civil Liberties Union, the California Young Democrats, the Republican Liberty Caucus, the California Council of Churches and several big labor unions.
Opponents say Prop. 19 would threaten public safety, violate federal law and drug-free workplace rules, allow a patchwork of different regulations, and wouldn't raise much, if any, tax revenue. Those critics include Mothers Against Drunk Driving; most law enforcement groups; all major-party candidates for governor, state attorney general and U.S. Senate; the California League of Cities; the California State Association of Counties; and business groups.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger might have tried to co-opt part of Prop. 19's benefit by signing a bill Sept. 30 to reduce possession of up to an ounce of marijuana from a misdemeanor punishable by up to a $100 fine to an infraction with the same penalty, sort of like a traffic offense but leaving no mark on one's criminal record. This means those cited are no longer entitled to jury trials and court-appointed attorneys, potentially saving taxpayers millions -- one of the criminal-justice costs Prop. 19 sought to eliminate. Prop. 19's supporters say this wouldn't be enough, as minority communities still would be disproportionately hit with the $100 tickets.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder also seemed to make a calculated effort to erode the measure's support by penning a letter this month underscoring that federal authorities will continue enforcing the federal ban on cultivation and sale no matter what California voters do.
The PPIC poll released this week showed support had declined among Democrats and even more sharply among independents while Republican support remained steadily low. Support declined across almost all demographic groups, with backing from Latinos dropping by 19 percentage points.
"Lately we're seeing some negative stories "... that raised questions as to whether this would really do anything about the Mexican drug cartels, and there have been stories about the potential economic impact being not as positive as the proponents suggest," said Jack Pitney, a politics professor at Claremont McKenna College, adding parents remain likely to balk at a measure they believe -- rightly or wrongly -- would make marijuana more readily available to their kids.
"I'm still going to be surprised if it passes," Pitney said. "I don't see any evidence that this is a voter magnet. People are not getting involved because of this, but rather, people who are turning out for other reasons will be voting on this. We don't know exactly what the numbers will look like, but the 2010 California electorate will be substantially more conservative than the 2008 electorate."
Some critics said supporters should have withheld this measure until 2012, when a presidential election would boost turnout and the state's Democratic-leaning voter registration could be used to better advantage. Prop. 19's supporters countered they would mobilize a tsunami of young voters turning out for the first time to support this measure -- an "invisible tide" strategy that's hard to gauge until the polls close on Election Day. The measure does indeed have a strong Facebook presence: More than 212,000 "liked" it by Friday, though not all of them were Californians, much less likely voters.
Gerston said "it just isn't the case" that all voters age 18 to 25 smoke marijuana and will stampede to the polls to legalize it. He said younger voters tilt more toward legalization, but nowhere near enough to offset the rest of the electorate.
"As it is, those voters come out the least, and in an election like this, they may be on the endangered species list," Gerston said. "The idea of reaching out to people who are normally not going to get involved (in an election) with an issue like this? Very unlikely, naive."
And costly. Oaksterdam University founder Richard Lee spent $1.4 million to put Prop. 19 on the ballot, then said in July he would step back and let campaign professionals do the rest.
With other big-ticket donors slow to appear, Lee put in another $57,000 from late August through early October. A few substantial donations came in, such as $59,500 from billionaire Progressive Insurance Chairman Peter Lewis, a benefactor of many of California's past drug-reform measures; $77,000 from television producer Kevin Bright ("Friends"); and $50,000 from retired software mogul Stephen Silberstein, of Belvedere. Still, the Yes on 19 campaign had only $67,468 in the bank as of Sept. 30 -- a pittance by California ballot-measure standards.
"You don't have the big guns coming out for this, like George Soros, that you had last time," Gerston said. "They saw the writing on the wall."