Despite Proposition 19's loss at the polls last week, marijuana legalization advocates in California are already working on their comeback plan for 2012 and are almost giddy about their prospects.
They see the election as a trial run that could lead to a campaign with a better message, a tighter measure and more money. Both the winning and losing sides say California's voters rejected this specific initiative, but remain open to legalizing the easily obtainable drug.
The proponents have a huge head start compared to where they were two years ago. At that time, regulating and taxing marijuana was the dream of a handful of Oakland activists. Now, the campaign has a broader base of supporters, including labor and civil rights leaders. Big-money donors have shown a keen interest. And the state's electorate and media have seriously debated the issue.
In addition, the presidential election is expected to draw far more young voters to the polls. If they had shown up Tuesday, supporters note, Proposition 19 might have come close to passing. Even so, they also point out with bemusement, legalization outpolled Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina.
"The question about legalizing marijuana is no longer when, it's no longer whether, it's how," said Ethan Nadelmann, the executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, a national advocacy group that will play a pivotal role in any 2012 ballot measures in California or other states. "There's a really strong body of people who will be ready to pull the lever in the future."
California voters rejected Proposition 19, 54% to 46%. But a post-election survey by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner found they favor legalization 49% to 41%, with 10% uncertain. And 52% said that marijuana laws, like alcohol prohibition, do more harm than good.
The consultants who ran the opposition campaign found that voters who were undecided were susceptible to arguments for legalizing marijuana. They also reacted negatively to "reefer madness" arguments that pot was inherently dangerous or a gateway drug. "Our best opportunity to beat it was on the merits of 19 itself," said Wayne Johnson, the strategist for the No on 19 campaign.
A key issue for legalization supporters in 2012 will be to find the money to run statewide television advertising. "The Yes campaign always has the burden of proof. We have to make the case that things should change," said Doug Linney, the strategist for the Yes on 19 campaign.
The campaign hoped to spend between $7 million and $15 million but brought in about $4 million. More than $1.5 million came from Richard Lee, the main proponent, who owns a medical marijuana dispensary, nursery and trade school in Oakland. A few wealthy businessmen and young Silicon Valley entrepreneurs wrote sizable checks. "I think we found a lot of friends along the way that we will want to include from the get-go this time," Linney said.
On Saturday, Nadelmann told a conference on marijuana policy in Denver that the big donors who supported past measures would step up if the polls looked favorable. "They want to be in this to win," he said.
He noted that George Soros, the hedge-fund multibillionaire, donated $1 million to help Proposition 19 to clearly indicate his support for legalizing marijuana and that Peter B. Lewis, a retired insurance company executive, has decided to focus his philanthropy on marijuana reform.
Lewis, who donated more than $218,000 to pass Proposition 19, paid for Greenberg Quinlan Rosner to poll California voters. "Ballot measures are an option in 2012, but I can't speak to specific strategy at this time," Lewis said in a statement.
The next campaign in California will also start with a base of support.
The measure was backed as a job-creation plan by the state leadership of the Service Employees International Union and the United Food and Commercial Workers, but the unions were focused intensely on the races for statewide office. The state National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People and the Latino Voters League embraced Proposition 19 as a way to end a drug war in which African Americans and Latinos are arrested at much higher rates than whites, though the California exit poll showed both groups voted against the measure.
The campaign had also counted on young voters. Voters under 25 supported Proposition 19 by a 2-to-1 margin, but they did not turn out in big numbers. The measure would have allowed adults 21 and older to grow and possess marijuana. "As a motivator, it was always a big question," Linney said. "I always thought myself it was a little overrated."
But Anna Greenberg with Greenberg Quinlan Rosner said that if young voters turn out in 2012 in numbers typical for presidential elections, legalization "is poised to win."
Legalization advocates are also rethinking the measure. A provision designed to protect people who smoke marijuana from discrimination was assailed by opponents who said it would prevent employers from firing stoned nurses or bus drivers. Nadelmann said Saturday it might have to be sacrificed.
The Greenberg Quinlan Rosner poll found that voters, by 50% to 44%, think employers should be able to fire workers who test positive for marijuana even if they smoked it in their off hours.
The strongest message for Proposition 19, Linney said, was that it would control marijuana better than prohibition. But it allowed cities and counties to set the rules for marijuana sales and taxes, and opponents seized on that uncertainty to predict a chaotic patchwork of regulations.
Linney expects a vigorous debate among supporters over whether to keep a local approach. "That will be the central issue in drafting the next one," he said.
The Greenberg Quinlan Rosner poll found the issue splits voters, with 44% trusting city and county governments more to control marijuana, and 38% trusting the state more.
Johnson, the opposition strategist, said undecided voters seemed most intrigued by the promise that the measure would raise billions of dollars in tax revenue. But he said they became disillusioned when they learned there was no way to estimate how much would be raised.
"When that went away," he said, "they went away."