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Marijuana Legalization: Demographics is Destiny

One of my first observations about the defeat of California’s Proposition 19 was how important turnout demographics were to the final outcome. Now, a poll for the Drug Policy Alliance by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research provides further insight. From the Report:

If youth had comprised the same percentage of the electorate on Tuesday as they do in Presidential election years, Prop 19 would have been statistically tied. According to an analysis of turnout data and post-election surveys, the Prop 19 would have been 49 percent yes and 51 percent no.

While I will need to wait for official final turnout numbers from the California Secretary of State to determine what impact Prop 19 had on youth turnout, it is clear from the available data that the initiative didn’t bring out young voters in the levels they normally do for presidential elections (as opposed to midterms).

Greenberg’s finding are in line with my early analysis, which indicated that the demographics of a presidential election electorate would probably cause a swing of two points from opposition to support for legalization. Clearly, the best time to attempt future marijuana legalization ballot measures is in presidential years. Like with any elections, who actually shows up to vote is key.

While grim, one positive note for supporters of legalization is that Demographics are clearly moving in their direction. New, mostly supportive, young adults turn 18 every day, while, to put it bluntly, every day, older, less supportive individuals pass on.

Yes on legalization, but no on Prop 19

The other interesting finding of the poll was that there was a small but significant group of voters–roughly four percent–that supported legalization, in general, but opposed Prop 19:

50 percent of voters believe marijuana should be legal. When asked “Regardless of how you feel about Proposition 19, do you think the use of marijuana should be made legal, or not?,” 50 percent of voters answered yes.

More than 30 percent of “No” voters believe marijuana should be legal. According to the new GQR survey, 31 percent of “no” voters agree: “I believe marijuana should be legalized or penalties for marijuana should be reduced, but I opposed some of the specifics of Proposition 19.”

There are probably a variety of factors that caused those who support legalization to oppose Prop 19. The campaign clearly dropped the ball when it allowed the opposition to influence a large segment of newspaper editorial boards that the initiative was poorly written, a claim that was ridiculous. This probably turned off some voters.

In addition, there are a significant number of marijuana stakeholders in California whose incomes are derived from the gray market for marijuana. Some of them could have opposed the measure because they were concerned the specific design of Prop 19 would directly hurt their marijuana-related businesses. The fact that Prop 19 failed in marijuana-grower-heavy Humboldt Country is strong evidence that this was a small but real factor.

Dealing with the stakeholders ahead of time when crafting the proposition may have slightly increased support. Similarly, it is likely that, for states without as large and vibrant a medical marijuana industry as California (for example Massachusetts), supporters of reform won’t need to worry as much about this dynamic.

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Jon Walker

Jon Walker

Jonathan Walker grew up in New Jersey. He graduated from Wesleyan University in 2006. He is an expert on politics, health care and drug policy. He is also the author of After Legalization and Cobalt Slave, and a Futurist writer at