Politics of marijuana: Do Democrats benefit?

Many believe that having a marijuana initiative on the ballot brings young people to the polls and helps Democrats.

Proposition 19, which would legalize personal marijuana use in California, has even been viewed as a reason why the Golden State appears to be likely to be a rare blue outlier in a big Republican year.

But some believe that conventional wisdom may be wrong. 

Roger Salazar, the chief spokesman for the No on 19 campaign, claimed that there was “no empirical evidence” that Proposition 19 was drawing younger voters to the polls who wouldn’t have come otherwise. He also said there was no such effect when voters passed the Proposition 215 medical marijuana initiative in 1996. 

Early exit poll results reported Tuesday by Edison Research for McClatchy Newspapers and other news organizations showed age is a major indicator of support for Proposition 19. While voters ages 18 to 39 generally support Proposition 19 by slim margins, the measure is trailing among voters 40 and older, the polling said.

Moreover, the first wave of 1,500 voter interviews at 50 polling places did not show unusually high turnout among young voters – a necessary political ingredient for Proposition 19 to pass.

That means that the predictions from campaign supporters and others that the measure would drive voters to the polls are not playing out—at least so far.

Just 11 percent of voters surveyed named Proposition 19 as the one contest that matters most. Just under half the voters surveyed said the governor’s race was the major draw, while 27 percent cared most about the Senate race.

“I wouldn’t take it for granted that the young people who are going to vote for marijuana legalization are also going to vote for Democrats, especially if those Democrats are opposed to the initiative,” said Tom Angell, a spokesman for the Yes on 19 campaign.

Top Democrats are opposed to the initiative.

In fact, most major Democratic candidates and elected officials are against it — Jerry Brown, Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, and attorney general candidate Kamala Harris.

Polls show Proposition 19 is widely opposed by Republicans and older voters.

But according to the latest Field Poll, it holds slight leads among Democrats (51 percent) and voters under 40 (54 percent). But older voters of any stripe are more likely to go to the polls — and older Democrats are uncertain about Proposition 19.

The California Democratic Party is officially neutral on Proposition 19, something several people on the yes side have characterized as a victory. Party chairman John Burton, meanwhile, has been quoted several times saying Proposition 19 and other pot measures will bring young progressive voters to the polls.

“Personally, yeah,” Burton said Tuesday. “I voted for it. The party has not endorsed it, but personally, I have publicly supported it.”

Salazar says the initiative is badly written and vague on key issues, with a lot of “gray areas” on such things as driving while intoxicated or the rights of employers to discipline and fire employees for being stoned.

“I’m not opposed to marijuana legalization if it is done in the right way,” said Salazar. He added that there are those in the No on 19 campaign who agree with him, as well as those who would be against it under any circumstances.

But some on the yes side have attacked Salazar and others for what they see as over-the-top attacks. For instance, the front page of the No on 19 website shows a wrecked school bus turned over on its side.

This plays into some of the messages going out to voters on slate mailers — mainly ones aimed at Republicans. The Small Business Action Committee mailer stated “Proposition 19 allows school bus drivers to smoke pot right before work.”

The mailer’s publisher, Joel Fox, said the spot was written by No on 19, who purchased the slot. A “Voting Guide for Republicans” sent out by another slate mail company claimed “Prop 19 endangers our families by allowing big rig and bus drivers to smoke marijuana on their breaks.”

“We didn’t buy any slates,” Salazar said. “We didn’t have any money.”

Dan Rush, a Democratic Party delegate and a union representative with United Food & Commercial Workers Union isn’t buying it. He said the No side has been holding press conferences in front of school buses — such as a recent event featuring Feinstein —because “They never had a real message.”

Proposition 19 backers noted that there were “get out the vote” drives organized by student groups on numerous college campuses to drive people to the polls to vote for the initiative, including documented efforts at Fresno State, UCLA and UC Berkeley. At San Diego State, Angell said, the polls were so overwhelmed they’re run out of provisional ballots and had to send out for more.

Meanwhile, advocates are planning more initiatives around the country on behalf of marijuana causes, assuring that this same debate will soon be replaying in Democratic organizations elsewhere.

For his part, Rush said he understands why so ma
ny top Democrats ran away from the measure — and that he hopes things will be different in the near future.

“The top of the ticket didn’t need any more missiles fired at them,” Rush said. “Proposition 19 is a missile that would have been used by Meg Whitman, Steve Cooley and Abel Maldonado.”

Over at the UC Berkeley campus, the initiative was generating a lot of attention among young voters. Organizers were engaging in “dorm storming,” chanting pro-19 slogans outside of dorms because they were not allowed to go door-to-door, and “vote bombing,” getting students to get big groups of their friends together to go vote. 

For political organizer Abraham Kneisley of Berkeley, Proposition 19 has generated excitement among the young and Democrats alike. Kneisley is a UC Berkeley grad who said he has been organizing for various Democratic and progressive causes on the campus since 2000. 

“I’ve spent a lot of time here organizing a lot of things, and I’ve never seen this much enthusiasm,” he said. “We maybe had this much youth energy on Prop. 8,” the ballot initiative targeting gay marriage.

But some also said it was hard to know how many people were actually voting. One young woman made a loud pro-19 statement, then followed it up with “but I don’t vote.” 

But a pair of young anti-Prop 19 protestors were also walking across the UC Berkeley, and they were getting a lot of positive comments from passers by. Julia McDonald and Daniel Shelkofsky identified themselves as recent graduates of Mills College in Oakland and as Proposition 215 medical marijuana patients. 

They said that Proposition 19 was poorly written, and would allow local governments to impose restrictive taxes on them and otherwise step on their rights. A young Proposition 19 supporter soon stopped and engaged them in a friendly debate over what the initiative actually said. 

But MacDonald said that she suffers from fibromyalgia, an extremely painful condition causing inflammation of connective tissue, and that medical pot was the only thing that allowed her to start living her normal life again, including playing classical flute. 

MacDonald said she supports legalization for everyone, but only if it is done in a way that protects patients. She pointed to a 2012 effort that longtime Democratic political consultant Jack Herer is organizing. 

“I approve of it eventually,” she said, “as long as the integrity of patients is maintained.” 

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