November 3, 2010


The Defeat of Proposition 19

November 3, 2010 2:56 pm

By Ilya Somin, Associate Professor of Law, George Mason University

To me, the most disappointing of the many electoral results this Tuesday was the relatively narrow (54–46) defeat of California Proposition 19, the marijuana legalization initiative that I and many other VCers endorsed. I’m not disappointed because this proves that law professors have little electoral clout. We knew that already. Rather, the disappointment is because Prop 19 was the best opportunity in many years to deal a serious blow to the War on Drugs. Early polls showed that it had a decent chance to win.

At the same time, it is notable that such a broad legalization measure could get 46% of the vote in the nation’s largest state despite the near-uniform opposition of the political establishment in both parties, ranging from President Obama to Governor Schwarzenegger and many others. Such a result would have been almost unthinkable a decade ago.

The CNN exit polls on Proposition 19 contain lots of interesting data. They reveal that the initiative lost in large part because of its weakness among two groups: the elderly and self-identified “conservatives.”

I. The Age Gap.

People over the age of 65 voted against Prop 19 by a 68–32 margin. Had the electorate been limited to people under the age of 50, Proposition 19 would probably have won, albeit narrowly (by about 51–49). But people over the age of 50 formed a whopping 54% of the California electorate, which reflects the much greater of propensity of the elderly to vote and participate in politics. Using the data collected here, I calculated that people age 50 and above are actually only about 37.5% of the voting-age population in the state.

The interesting question about the age gap on this issue is whether it is a cohort effect or a generational effect. In other words, do people start out favoring legalization in their twenties, but turn against it as they age (a cohort effect)? Or are more recent generations generally more favorable to drug legalization, a difference that persists as they age (a generational effect)? My tentative conclusion is that its probably more of a generational effect. This is not just a difference between the very young and the rest. Rather, each successive age group is much more pro-legalization than those older than them. Even 50–64 year olds were 12 points more favorable to Prop 19 than the over-65s. Moreover, much social science data suggests that political attitudes tend to be fairly consistent with age, solidifying for most people when they are in their twenties. Winston Churchill notwithstanding, if you were a socialist at twenty, that implies a high probability you will still be one at forty. In addition, an important recent study suggests that the elderly actually become more socially liberal as they age, not less so.

II. The War on Drugs and Conservatism.

Self-identified conservatives were even more opposed to Prop 19 than the elderly, with 73% voting against. Unlike the generation gap, legalization advocates cannot expect this problem to get better on its own. I don’t expect conservatives to quickly change their views on this issue. Adherents all political ideologies are slow to change longstanding beliefs, and tend to dismiss opposing evidence out of hand, while overvaluing any evidence that supports their preexisting views.

But I hope conservatives will at least consider the following points. First, the case against the War on Drugs and other “morals” regulations is very similar to the standard conservative critique of economic regulation, a point I made in greater detail in this article and here. Indeed, the War on Drugs is one of our biggest examples of economic regulation, since it bans the sale of a product and creates a vast illegal market that stimulates violence and organized crime. It is in fact quite similar to left-wing proposals to ban products such as cigarettes or fatty foods, both of which pose greater health risks than many currently illegal drugs do. Ironically, Proposition 19 was opposed by 67% of those voters who said in the same survey that government is currently doing “too much,probably because of the large overlap between this group and ideological conservatives.

Second, the War on Drugs severely hampers two cherished conservative goals: winning the War on Terror and promoting family values. Even if you think that drug prohibition is on balance a worthy objective, is it really worth the price of greatly exacerbating the terrorist threat and undercutting the ability of poor African-Americans to form intact families? Few can do so so long as a very high percentage of poor black males are either in prison or cycling in and out of custody, in large part as a result of the War on Drugs.

Every ideology sometimes faces difficult tradeoffs. The War on Drugs poses several particularly important ones for conservatives. Over time, I hope that more conservatives will come to agree with William F. Buckley’s conclusion that “it is outrageous to live in a society whose laws tolerate sending young people to life in prison because they grew, or distributed, a dozen ounces of marijuana.”