Prop 19: Will California legalize pot in November?

A ballot initiative legalizing marijuana is gaining traction with voters in America’s most populous state

A type of medical marijuana.
(Image credit: Corbis)

California's Proposition 19 is "one of the top — and most contentious — ballot issues in the nation this November," says the New York Times. And little wonder: If the measure passes and becomes law, California would become the first state in the union to legalize marijuana. (Watch an MSNBC discussion about Prop 19.) Here's an instant guide:

What is Proposition 19?

A ballot measure to make the sale and use of marijuana legal in the state of California for all adults over the age of 21. Individuals could legally carry up to one ounce of marijuana without fear of state or local prosecution.

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Why do California lawmakers want to legalize pot?

Supporters say a commercial marijuana industry could bring as much as $1.4 billion in tax revenue into the cash-strapped state, and could boost California's agricultural sector. Legalizing pot would also take power away from Mexican drug cartels that import marijuana into the state, say proponents. Some former police chiefs say it would help empty out overcrowded jails, and allow law-enforcement officers to focus on more serious crimes.

What's the argument against it?

Opponents point out that legalizing pot is against the federal Controlled Substances Act, and would increase drug trafficking elsewhere in the country. There are concerns that it would act as a gateway drug for high schoolers to try stronger drugs like Ecstasy, and would increase alcohol and other substance abuse in adults. Prop 19 opponents say legalization would increase, not lessen, smuggling from Mexico due to increased demand.

Who is in support of it?

The Service Employee International Union, the state's most powerful labor union, recently gave Prop 19 its support. Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a group of retired police chiefs, judges, and prosecutors, has also endorsed the measure.

Who is against it?

Sheriff Lee Baca of Los Angeles County has called Prop 19 a "threat to public safety," and nearly every active police chief in California agrees. Gubernatorial candidates Meg Whitman and Jerry Brown, California senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, and Republican senatorial challenger Carly Fiorina have all said they oppose the measure.

What do polls say?

As of early September, they seemed to be narrowly in favor of Prop 19 — though support has waned through the summer as lawmakers have continued to come out against it. But some experts question how much stock ought to be put in the polling data: "If you tell a live person you're voting 'yes' to legalize marijuana," said pollster Jay Levy, "some voters might believe they'd be seen as admitting they use it."

What's likely to happen?

Even if it does pass, it's unlikely that California pot smokers will be lighting up anytime soon. All nine former chiefs of the Drug Enforcement Administration pressed the government to pursue a legal challenge against the state if it passes Prop 19, much as it did against Arizona after it passed its immigration bill. A lengthy courtroom battle could be in the cards before Californians get the legal right to roll their own.

Sources: CNN (2), LAist, Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Seattle Times, Associated Press

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