Voters say no to legalised pot

California voters have rejected Proposition 19, a proposal that would have legalised recreational use of marijuana.

A day after the “no” vote, marijuana advocates wondered how they failed in trendsetting, liberal California.

It may have been the ads, newspaper editorials and politicians, warning of a world where stoned drivers would crash school buses, nurses would show up at work high and employers would be helpless to fire drug-addled workers.

Was it the fear of the unknown? An older electorate more likely to oppose pot?

Whatever the reason, activists today vowed to push on in California, as well as in states that rejected other pot measures.

“Social change doesn’t happen overnight,” said Paul Armentano, deputy director of the National Organisation for Repeal of Marijuana Laws.

In South Dakota, voters rejected for the second time a medical marijuana measure – a step first taken by California in 1996 and by 13 other states since. Oregon voters refused to expand their medical marijuana programme to create a network of state-licensed nonprofit dispensaries.

A medical marijuana measure on Arizona’s ballot remained too close to call.

California’s initiative, which would have allowed adults age 21 and older to possess and grow small amounts of marijuana, failed 54 to 46 per cent. An Associated Press analysis of exit and pre-election polls found voters opposed the proposition regardless of race, gender, income or education level.

“There is a sense of people wanting to move into a new policy … but still being wary of what that change might mean,” said Ethan Nadelmann, director of the pro-legalisation Drug Policy Project.

Roger Salazar, a spokesman for the successful campaign to defeat Prop 19, agreed that misgivings about possible social problems from increased marijuana use helped seal the measure’s fate.

But he also blamed backers for leaving it up to local governments instead of the state to set sales regulations. He also faulted them for promoting the measure as a revenue windfall for the state and a way to undercut drug traffickers and free up police to pursue more serious crimes.

“The risks of legalising something as important as marijuana were far greater than the potential benefits, and the benefits were far from guaranteed,” Salazar said. “If they are going to come back with something, it has to be a lot more tightly written.”

Preliminary election returns showed Prop 19 winning in 11 of 58 counties, with the strongest support in San Francisco and Santa Cruz.

But in a sign of what a tough sell it was, the measure lost in the state’s vaunted marijuana-growing region known as the “Emerald Triangle” of Humboldt, Mendocino and Trinity counties. Many in the region feared the system they created would be taken over by corporations or would undercut a cornerstone of the local economies by sending pot prices plunging.

Those most anxious about the economy were not convinced that legalising pot was worth the potential tax revenue or jobs created by a newly legal marijuana industry.

A Los Angeles dispensary manager said the proposition was a step in the right direction, though its failure wasn’t necessarily bad.

“The fact it didn’t pass is not really so bad for us because it keeps the status quo for dispensaries and collectives that are already operating,” said Tim Blakeley, 44, who manages Sunset Junction Organic Medicine.

“People need more time to get used to the idea of legalised pot,” he said.

For many in California, the status quo was also fine but for another reason,

Just a month before the election, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed legislation that made possession of up to an ounce (28 grams) of marijuana the equivalent of a traffic ticket, subject to no more than a $100 fine and no arrest or criminal record.

Prop 19 supporters said they believed Schwarzenegger signed the bill to undercut any sense of urgency around marijuana legalisation.

Richard Lee, the Oakland, Calif., medical marijuana entrepreneur who sponsored Prop 19 and spent $1.4 million of his own money to qualify the measure for the ballot and try to get it passed, drew hope in the generational divide among the voters.

The only unequivocal support for the measure came from voters under 30, though even they were not as united in their support as voters 65 and older were in their opposition.

Lee said the fact that 3.4 million Californians cast ballots for legalising marijuana and that Prop 19 came within 9 percentage points of passing were victories themselves.

“The issue is generational,” he said. “Many of the biggest contributors to the campaign were younger and based in Silicon Valley, representing a changing of the guard of political influence and leadership.”

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