November 1, 2010

California Voters To Choose Fate Of Legalized Pot

Marijuana usage for medicinal purposes has been legal in California since 1996, but a new, hard-fought referendum will be on the ballot Tuesday for voters to decide whether or not to become the first US state to legalize all marijuana consumption, cultivation and trade.

Proposition 19 would allow people ages 21 and older to possess up to one ounce of marijuana and grow up to 25 square feet of pot plants. A passing vote could also pave the way for large-scale commercial cultivation, though implementing such a rule would be left up to municipal and county authorities.

"Prop 19 would effectively leapfrog California over the Netherlands," Drug Policy Alliance chief Ethan Nadelmann told the AFP news agency, referring to lenient Dutch marijuana laws. "It would make California the leading political jurisdiction in the world in terms of legal regulation of marijuana."

Supporters of Prop 19 include a wide range of politicians, unions and rights groups. Billionaire philanthropist George Soros put up a million dollars of his own money to aid the "YES" campaign for marijuana legalization.

"Regulating and taxing marijuana would simultaneously save taxpayers billions of dollars in enforcement and incarceration costs, while providing many billions of dollars in revenue annually," Soros wrote in an open letter obtained by AFP.

Nadelmann cautioned that the measure "won't instantly provide major billions in revenue or instantly put Mexican drug cartels out of business." But if Prop 19 does win, "it's a major step in that direction. It's a major step for ultimately legalizing marijuana throughout the country and hopefully, more broadly," he said.

Despite much support, a recent opinion poll showed a 49 percent lead for the "NO" vote, with a 44 percent for the "YES" vote -- an unexpected blow for the YES campaign, which has led surveys for months.

The proposition has also gained criticism from international communities.

Last Week, ten Latin American countries meeting in Colombia voiced their concern, saying the US could not "promote penalizing this kind of activity in other countries and authorize the legalization... of drug production on their own territory."

US authorities say a yes vote could complicate the already tense war on drugs.

But supporters of the referendum argue that legalizing marijuana could impede the lucrative market for Mexican drug traffickers, who are in an ongoing drug war battle for control of trafficking routes into the US.

Nadelmann was cautiously optimistic about the chances of Prop 19 being approved on election day.

"The public opinion polling makes me feel pessimistic. But there are a few things that make me feel positive about it," he told AFP.

Even if the referendum is rejected, the push to legalize marijuana is further ahead now than at any other time in recent years and a majority of California voters supported the campaign.

Government statistics have shown that nearly 7 percent of California's 37 million residents smoke marijuana at least once a month.

If the referendum is rejected, "it would be because some of the people who support legalizing marijuana are still nervous about this specific initiative, nervous about how the federal government will respond," Nadelmann said.


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