Marijuana and Democracy – All Eyes on California

Friday, October 22, 2010

proposition19“Democracy is the worst form of government,” as Churchill once put it, “except all those other forms that have been tried.”  Whatever else it should include, it’s hard to imagine democracy without regular, free and fair elections that express the majority’s preferences.

So it should be no surprise that California’s upcoming vote on Proposition 19 – whether to legalize marijuana under state law – is being followed so closely in many countries as a gauge of changing views in the United States on whether or not prohibition is the best approach for marijuana.  The U.S. government has been the architect and leading proponent of the global drug prohibition regime, including marijuana.  Changing attitudes among U.S. voters on marijuana policy will sooner or later have repercussions on the global regime.

To be sure, California is only one of 50 states, and U.S. federal government policy remains four-square behind marijuana prohibition.  But in the U.S. federal system, the states are famously the “laboratories of democracy,” where innovations considered too bold or risky to take up in Washington can begin on a smaller scale, be adopted by other states, and perhaps eventually be reflected in national policy.  And of course California is an exceptionally large state, home to nearly one in eight Americans – and boasting more than 23 million eligible voters.  Indeed, California’s 23 million eligible voters outnumber the entire populations of its five closest neighboring states combined (Arizona, Nevada, Oregon, Utah and Washington).

If turnout in California’s recent comparable statewide elections is any guide, some 9 million Californians may actually go to the polls on November 2.  With less than two weeks to go, surveys suggest that the vote will be close.  But whatever the outcome, the long-standing stalemate on marijuana policy seems ready to give way to a new phase of innovation.  The fact that literally millions of people are about to cast ballots on a distinctly different approach to marijuana represents a significant step towards the open, democratic debate that such an important area of public policy requires.

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