Op-Ed: Lessons from legalization: What Californians are teaching the rest of the country about policy change

A signature gatherer discusses a petition to legalize marijuana in April. For the second time in six years, California voters are being asked to legalize the recreational use of marijuana.
(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

In this dreary season of continuously leaked emails and braggadociously pawed lady-bits, it can be hard to imagine Nov. 8 bringing anything more positive than a temporary respite from our political misery.

Yet — amazingly! — Californians are on the verge of tripling the number of American adults who can legally acquire marijuana without interference from doctors, dealers or cops. If Maine and Nevada voters do likewise, as seems probable, that would further expand the zone of recreational freedom to cover nearly one-fifth of the U.S. population.

The war on marijuana, which has mangled so many millions of lives, may never fully recover from the blow. This is a cause for great rejoicing.


What’s the 2016 equivalent of medical marijuana shops? Charter schools come quickly to mind.

It’s also an occasion to look in the rear-view mirror, see how differently things appeared even six years ago, and wonder how the formula that dismantled prohibition can be replicated or adapted to break apart other public policy logjams.

I see three main Proposition 64 lessons for people who seek to improve upon the frequently infuriating status quo:

1) Push for (and tolerate) experimentation. Recreational legalization would have never happened without first creating the loophole of medical marijuana, that other gift brought to us by California voters via Proposition 215 in 1996.

Yes, a lot of healthy young people suddenly discovered chronic back pain and anxiety; sure, cynics were onto something by calling it the white-people-get-out-jail-free card. But the medical marijuana model brought relief to patients who valued the medicine and served as a demonstration project to skeptics that the republic would not collapse under a sea of green crosses. As a result, medical marijuana reliably polls better than just about any politician you can name.

What’s the 2016 equivalent of medical marijuana shops? Charter schools come quickly to mind. Wherever the one size is not fitting all to the end user’s satisfaction, there is an opportunity for governmental bodies to allow for some real or metaphorical outside lab work. Beware any entity that would prematurely close such experiments down.


2) Know that sometimes freedom’s gonna jump the line. Incremental semi-legalization through the medical loophole eventually developed its own state-by-state pattern. Activist organizations would wait until public polling reached a certain height, then start methodically chipping away at prohibition. But California’s Proposition 19 six years ago ripped up that script.

Launched by dispensary owner Richard Lee, Proposition 19 went for full legalization long before the path had been paved. It seems crazy now to imagine, but as late as August 2010 some pro-legalization groups were on the sidelines about the initiative, and I remember well going to a pot conference then and listening to panelists try to rally support for the thing. At a pot conference!

Although Prop. 19 failed — both because it was too soon and because it was poorly conceived — the full-legalization genie was now firmly out of the bottle. Lee’s maneuver led directly to the game-changing 2012 initiatives in Colorado and Washington.

3) Endure (or please knock off) the giggling. The great unspoken truth about mainstream politics is that even if a policy is supported by a majority of Americans, if it has for whatever reason become taboo among the political class, those who advocate for it will be laughed at. Scratch that, giggled at.

When Arnold Schwarzenegger announced his opposition to Proposition 19, he used a telling phrase: California, he warned, would become a “laughingstock.” The Golden State’s august newspaper editorial boards, which opposed the initiative almost unanimously, could not resist the most obvious jokes this side of Woody Allen one-liners about Los Angeles.

“What were they smoking?” cried the Sacramento Bee. “No to ganja madness!” declared the San Diego Union-Tribune. “A dopey idea,” said the Desert Sun.


But ever since Colorado and Washington blazed the trail — see what I did there? — nervous laughter has mostly subsided in my allegedly far-out home state. (Well, except for maybe the Central Valley: The Fresno Bee called Proposition 64 “half-baked.”)

Wherever you find a political establishment laughing uncomfortably, a bad bipartisan policy probably lurks nearby. Deep thinkers guffawed at Ron Paul’s 2007 presidential-debate suggestion that U.S. foreign policy provokes blowback, rolled their eyes at his son’s “quixotic” attempts to roll back the surveillance state, and tittered when then-New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson dared suggest in 1999 that the drug war is a failure.

Being first through the door can bring an onslaught of arrows, but it can also bring sorely needed freedom to millions of people. As we pre-celebrate the belated latitude for adults to consume a popular and non-deadly intoxicant, let’s look around for the next dopey idea whose time has come.

Matt Welch is editor at large of Reason and a contributing writer to Opinion.

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