2010 was an exciting but disappointing year for the marijuana legalization movement. California’s Proposition 19 did better than many past legalization efforts, but despite having an ample war chest and a well organized campaign, it still narrowly lost with 46.5% voting yes and 53.5% voting no. However, there is reason to believe this November may be different and that voters in at least one state may finally vote to end marijuana prohibition.

Marijuana legalization initiatives are already approved to appear on the ballot in Colorado (Amendment 64) and Washington State (Initiative 502).  These two initiatives have five important advantages this year compared to Prop 19.

1) Time – While two years is a very short period of time separating the ballot measures, the opinions of regular Americans on marijuana legalization are changing rapidly. In October 2009 Gallup found 44% of Americans thought marijuana should be legal, compared to 54% illegal. In 2010 that gap had closed to 46% legal – 50% illegal. By October 2011 Gallup found 50% thought it should be legal, compared to 46% illegal. That was basically an 8 point national swing for legalization in just the first year following Prop 19′s failure.

Pew polling also found a recent increase in support for legalization in one year. In March 2010 pew found 41% thought marijuana should be legal compared to 52% illegal. Exactly one year later Pew found support jumped to 45% legal – 50% illegal.

There has already been a significant growth in popular support for marijuana legalization since just 2010 when Prop 19 failed. If the trend continues, support should likely grow another few point between now and November, when voters in Colorado and Washington State go to the polls.
1969-2011 Trend: Support for Making Use of Marijuana Legal

2) Turnout, Age – Another piece of good news for marijuana legalization is that 2012 is a presidential election year; 2010 was only a congressional election year. Presidential elections almost always experience much higher overall voter turnout, especially among younger voters. In 2008 the last presidential election, people under the age of 30 cast 17.1% of all the votes. In 2010 people under 30 made up only 11.3% of the vote.

This is very important for marijuana legalization, because there is a huge age divide on the issue. Young voters overwhelming support it, while older voters oppose it. According to Gallup 62% of those adults under 30 support legalization while only 31% of those over 65 do. If young voters in 2010 had comprised the same percentage of the electorate as they had in the 2008 presidential election, Prop 19 would have done significantly better, likely failing by only 49% yes to 51% no.

3) Turnout, Partisan – In addition 2010 was a highly unusually wave election for Republicans. There was a relatively high turnout among Republican leaning voters and an unusually low turnout among Democratic leaning voters. This likely hurt Prop 19, since Republicans voters tend to be less supportive of legalization. Gallup found 57% of Democrats think marijuana should be legal while only 35% of Republicans feel that way. Early indications are that in 2012 we will see nothing like the historic Republican wave that happened in 2010, and partisan turnout should be more even. A more traditional partisan balance in turnout would improve a marijuana legalization ballot measure performance this year compared to 2010.

4) Clear Regulatory Structures – While there are important technical differences between the initiatives on the ballot in Washington State and Colorado, they both clearly assign a specific state agency to regulate, control and tax marijuana. On the other hand Prop 19 didn’t directly lay out how state agencies would regulate and tax marijuana. This lack of explicit instruction about a state regulation scheme was widely attacked by opponents to make the claim that Prop 19 was “poorly drafted.”

Indications are that this particular attack did cost Prop 19 some support and contributed to its narrow loss. PPIC polling found that 7% of voters said the main reason they voted no on Prop 19 was because it was “poorly written.” Similarly Greenberg Quinlan Rosner polling found that almost a third of those who voted against Prop 19 in general thought marijuana should be legal or decriminalized but had specific problems with Prop 19. Both I-502 and Amendment 64 were drafted in part to address these concerns. One hopes the design of these two measures will help them win over those on the fence.

5) Strength in Numbers – While hard to quantify, I think the fact the legalization will be on the ballot in at least two states this November will have a psychological impact on voters. A lot of the rhetoric around Prop 19 was about California going it alone. Often it was phrased as ‘would California lead the way’, ‘would California break with the rest of the country,’ or ‘would California live up to its hippie counter cultural image.’ I think concerns about being first and alone on this issue made some voters in California uncomfortable.

I feel that with legalization being simultaneously decided on in Washington and Colorado, the rhetoric this time around will be more about whether the country is moving to embrace marijuana legalization and less about whether a single state is going it alone. I suspect being part of a multi-state debate will make some undecided voters more comfortable than they would be if they were asked to vote to make their state the ‘first’ to take the plunge.

The demographic trends on the issue are so clearly moving in one direction that it is no longer a question of whether states will begin ending their prohibition against marijuana, but simply a matter of when. For these reasons and many others, 2012 just might be the beginning of the end for the war on marijuana in the United States.