Schwarzenegger may have just weakened support for Prop 19

With the election only a month away, moderate Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger may have sucked the wind out of the sails of one of the most contentious and interesting ballot measures in the cycle. Proposition 19, known everywhere as the bill that would legalize marijuana in California, has many convincing arguments at its back, but one of the more emotionally intuitive ones (as well as one of the most oft-cited) is the fact that the criminal penalties for owning marijuana can seem disproportionate and cruel.  Given this, the pro-Proposition 19 argument contended that the drug should be legalized if only so as to make sure that people caught with trivial amounts of marijuana didn’t have their lives ruined.  

That is, until last week, when Governor Schwarzenegger signed into law a new bill – Senate Bill 1449 – that would reduce the punishment for possession of an ounce of marijuana from a misdemeanor (which can involve court time and a permanent record) to simply an “infraction,” which is basically the equivalent of a parking ticket. And while some commentators have taken to calling the bill a prelude to Proposition 19, its incrementalist approach may actually do more harm than good to the controversial Proposition’s chances for passage.  

To be sure, supporters still have arguments in their back pockets to support the bill. Among other things, Proposition 19 was recently analyzed and found to have the potential to generate roughly $1.4 billion in revenue for California’s state government. At a time when revenue is so short, tax rates are arguably so high, and state-funded services are in so much peril, this news can only be welcome to California budget analysts, who have been waiting on new revenue sources for years.  

But, while the budgetary argument is strong, it is also divisive, given that Proposition 19’s hard-line libertarian supporters tend to view the taxation of any good, pot included, as a moral evil on par with financial slavery. As a result, it’s perfectly plausible that some libertarians could jump ship. 

This is because, while Senate Bill 1449 does leave certain areas of the marijuana market open to draconian punishment, supporters have a higher burden now that only one ounce has been effectively decriminalized. Opponents can be forgiven for asking how much drug use Proposition 19’s supporters actually do support, and given the absolutist answers which some of those supporters might be inclined to give, the Proposition could plausibly start to look extreme. Moreover, assuming a limit can be set, the argument that “one ounce isn’t enough to cover the injustice but the extent of Proposition 19 is” certainly leads to a politically awkward and philosophically ambiguous talking point that has none of the kick of the original “Marijuana criminalization destroys lives.”  

In short, in triangulating with the supporters of medical marijuana, Schwarzenegger may have unwittingly destroyed them. Proposition 19 still runs strong in the polls, but now that the stakes have been lowered, who knows if that will last the rest of the month.