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Did pot initiative come a cycle too soon?

Recent statewide polls show that an initiative to legalize and regulate marijuana could be in trouble. But they also show that opinions skew heavily by age, giving encouragement to those who believe voters are still likely to choose legalization in the next few years if the measure loses in November.

A Los Angeles Times/USC poll of 1,506 registered voters found that 49 percent favored legalization and 41 percent were opposed.

The Times poll, conducted May 19 to 26, follows a Public Policy Institute of California poll released on May 19. That poll showed 49 percent of respondents in favor of legalization and 48 percent opposed. Both polls had a margin of error of less than three points.  

With roughly half the electorate supportive of legalization, the figures suggest that the November initiative could be in trouble, because controversial ballot initiatives traditionally lose strength as the election approaches, their momentum blunted by opponents’ spending.

The PPIC poll, which broke down its results according to age group, suggested that older voters were more likely to oppose the initiative while younger voters were in support.

“It does seem like one of those issues where you are for it or against,” said Dean Bonner, a research associate with the PPIC who worked on the survey, noting that only 3 percent of respondents were undecided. “There isn’t a whole lot of area for deliberation.”

This means that turnout could be a key factor in determining the outcome. If one assumes the “no” side picks up all the undecideds, the initiative would lose by two points.

A look at demographic trends, meanwhile, suggest that the “yes” side would narrow that margin significantly each year they waited, via a combination of older voters dying off and younger people becoming eligible to vote. That difference could amount to a net difference of at least a percentage point a year.

Nothing is cast in stone, of course, including poll numbers: People may change their opinions as they age and move from one demographic subgroup to the next, and those at one end of the group may have different opinions than those at the other end.

The Times poll found that voters aged 18 to 29 support the initiative by 61 percent to 32 percent, with 40 percent “strongly” in favor and only 20 percent strongly opposed.
With approximately 1.1 million 16- and 17-year-olds who will become eligible to vote in the next two years, these voters alone could nearly wipe out a quarter-million vote margin by 2012, at least on paper.

Of course, younger voters are notoriously hard to get to the polls. Voter turnout among 18- to 29-year-olds in California has been only about 25 percent in midterm elections like the one happening this fall. And the youngest voters in that demographic group also are the hardest to get out on election day.

That may suggest another reason to have waited until 2012 — especially with a reelection bid by President Barack Obama on the ballot. Even if voter turnout among this group isn’t as high as in 2008, these new voters alone could push about a net percentage point on the legalization question over two years.

But California Democratic Party chairman John Burton said that support for the marijuana initiative could combine with opposition to the California Chamber of Commerce-backed effort to turn back the AB 32 global warming law, potentially bringing an unusually large number of young voters out in November.

“Not that all young kids use it, but I think they feel people should not be thrown in jail for it,” Burton said.

Dan Newman, a spokesman for the Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis Act of 2010, said his own internal polling showed that this election could motivate large numbers of young voters. This would skew the turnout models used by pollsters, he argues, which tend to show low turnout among young people.

It’s also up in the air whether the youngest voters will keep the trend going as fast as supporters think. The PPIC poll found that 60 percent of people 35-to-44 support legalization, but in the 18-to-34 group, support dropped to 53 percent.

Support was also low among the fastest-growing voter group, Latinos, the PPIC polls found. Even among Latinos under 45, support was only 40 percent.

Meanwhile, both polls showed that older voters are more likely to oppose the initiative.

Of those 65 and older, 52 percent are opposed, including 38 percent who are strongly opposed. Only 35 percent favor the measure, with only 20 percent strongly in support. The PPIC poll found the same amount of support among those 65 and older, 35 percent, with 62 percent opposed.

Older people also vote at higher rates, with about 4.5 million voters 65 and older showing up at the polls in 2008. If they turn out in the same numbers this fall, their numbers would add about a net 600,000 votes to the “no” tally.  

But the youngest baby boomers hit 65 next year — and many of those in the 65 to 70 range are more aligned with boomer values than those of the generation before. In other words, these people may be more aligned with the next-younger demographic group in the Times survey, 45 to 64 year olds, who favor the initiative by a 49 percent to 43 percent margin. PPIC found that 53 percent of those 55 to 64 supported the idea.

Older voters are also, of course, more likely to die before the next election. Death rates are nearly three times as high for people 75 to 84 than they are for those 65-74 — and death rates for those 85 and older are about three times higher than that. In other words, the groups most likely to oppose the marijuana effort are also a lot more likely to die in the next two years, and therefore not to take part in the next election. Nearly 9 percent of people 75 to 84 will die over a two-year period; almost a quarter of people 85 and older will die over that same period.

Even given that older, sicker people are less likely to vote — or to respond to telephone surveys — a two-year delay would mean that many of the voters who are most likely to oppose the initiative will die or become medically unable to vote. Overlaying death rate tables over the Times survey data suggest that the no side would lose approximately 130,000 net votes over two years.

“A couple years might not be enough,” said Hans Johnson, PPIC associate director and an expert on demographics. While support for the idea has been rising rapidly, there may be a small but significant group of people who get more conservative about pot legalization as they get older.

“You can imagine that when you have kids, it’s not going to change your idea about gay marriage, but it could change your attitudes about drugs,” Johnson said.

Neither side has yet to spend much money. Newman said this is partly because of the low number of undecided voters, with each side wanting to husband their resources. The “yes” side has done a radio spot featuring endorsements from law enforcement officials.

John Lovell, a lobbyist for the California Narcotic Officers Association and other law enforcement groups organizing against the initiative, conceded that support for legalization has been growing for years. But he said there is evidence that there is a backlash building.

“I think that marijuana legalization is like any of the other high-intensity issues, where there is an ebb and flow.”

He pointed to the reaction to the growing ubiquity of pot in two fairly liberal communities. In Los Angeles, he noted, there has been a push to limit the spread of medical marijuana dispensaries. In Mendocino County in 2008, meanwhile, there was a gras
sroots movement that pushed through Measure B, which put stricter limits on growing and keeping medical marijuana.

Meanwhile, he said, the opposition to the initiative is just now organizing. The California Chamber of Commerce came out strongly against the legalization initiative on Thursday, calling it a workplace safety issue.

Lovell also pointed to the experience of Proposition 5. That 2008 initiative would have expanded drug treatment as an alternative to incarceration. It led in early polling, but ended up losing by nearly 20 points after law enforcement agencies attacked it, even though they were outspent by a wide margin.

“We don’t have to match the legalizers dollar for dollar, we just have to raise enough to get our message out,” Lovell said.


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