After taking a serious look at legalizing marijuana, Californians voted Tuesday to reject Proposition 19, which would have made the state the first to allow the drug to be sold for recreational use.
The measure drew strong support from voters younger than 25, as the campaign had hoped, but those voters did not turn out in unusually high numbers, according to a state exit poll. The initiative also failed to win over the moderate voters who make up the state's decisive swing vote.
The San Francisco Bay Area was the only region to tilt toward the measure, but it did so just slightly. In Los Angeles County, where a quarter of the state's voters live, the initiative lost.
Despite a potential double-digit loss, marijuana-legalization advocates said the proposition had transformed talk about legal pot from a late-night punch line into a serious policy matter.
"This has been a watershed moment," said Stephen Gutwillig, the California director for the Drug Policy Alliance, which waged an extensive ad campaign for the measure. "Even in defeat, Proposition 19 has moved marijuana legalization into the mainstream of American politics."
Tuesday's vote was just the first round, say legalization advocates, who are aiming measures at the 2012 ballot in Washington, Oregon, Colorado and very likely California. But it's also the second time in two years that California voters have rejected an initiative to soften penalties for drug crimes.
"The cover of the book looked nice, but it didn't read very well," said Roger Salazar, the spokesman for the opposition campaign. "This specific initiative was massively flawed."
Richard Lee, the medical marijuana entrepreneur who spearheaded the initiative and spent $1.5 million on the historic campaign, pledged to work with the initiative's critics to draft a new one.
"We won tonight. We won for the last six months, the last year, all the years we've been fighting. We're going to keep fighting," Lee told supporters who gathered inside and outside Oaksterdam University, the Oakland medical marijuana trade school he founded.
California's 1996 medical marijuana initiative, the first in the nation, has led to more liberal attitudes toward pot nationwide as similar programs spread to 13 other states and the nation's capital. On Tuesday, voters in Arizona and South Dakota were deciding whether to approve programs; voters in Oregon were weighing whether to allow storefront dispensaries.
Proposition 19's backers had hoped voters worried about the economy would embrace the measure as a way to raise new taxes. In 10 cities, including San Jose, Sacramento and Long Beach, voters appeared to be overwhelmingly approving taxes on medical and recreational marijuana.
Passage of Proposition 19 would have vaulted the state into unmapped territory, invigorated the movement to legalize marijuana and set up a dramatic confrontation with the federal government.
The initiative would have eliminated all criminal penalties for adults 21 and older who planted marijuana in a plot of up to 25 square feet or possessed up to an ounce for personal use. It also would have allowed city councils and county supervisors to authorize commercial cultivation and retail sales.
But the opposition was broad, according to the poll conducted by Edison Research for the National Voter Pool, a consortium of the major television news networks and the Associated Press. Men and women opposed it. Voters of every race opposed it. The campaign had hoped black and Latino voters would see the measure as a way to end disproportionate arrests of minorities caught with marijuana.
The measure drew intense interest. Foreign leaders weighed in. All the top statewide candidates opposed it. The federal drug czar denounced it. And the U.S. attorney general pledged to "vigorously enforce" federal narcotics laws whatever California did.
Americans tuned in to the Proposition 19 debate. More than four decades after the war on drugs was declared, the country is almost evenly divided on whether to legalize marijuana.
In California, half of the voters consistently tell pollsters they favor legal marijuana and a tenth are unsure. In September, support for the initiative crept above the halfway mark, triggering euphoria among advocates. But voters became skeptical about the details.
Opponents exploited their doubts by mocking it in radio ads and suggesting that it would create an epidemic of dope-addled teenagers, motorists and nurses. Proponents said it would control marijuana as alcohol is controlled, allow police to focus on serious crimes, curtail the black market and raise billions in taxes, but they opened themselves to criticism by overstating those claims.
Lee once hoped to raise $20 million for the campaign, but big-money donors stayed out until the end. Proponents raised about $4.2 million, almost a third in the last two weeks.