For the time being, New Yorkers can consider last November's defeat of Proposition 19, a California ballot initiative to legalize and regulate the personal use of marijuana, as none of their business. But as this debate spreads outward from California it will, sooner or later, reach New York.
Having started the war on marijuana, the federal government is the enforcer of the status quo - even as opinion polls show the public's desire for change. So, it is up to the states, one-by-one, to replace failed drug war policies with something that makes sense. To see how the future marijuana legalization debate might spread, let's consider the work of professor Everett M. Rogers.
Based on hundreds of case studies, Rogers says the launch of a new idea requires an adventuresome idea champion willing to deal with a lot of uncertainty. A handful of "early adopters" will follow suit. Then, after waiting and carefully watching what happens, the majority of the potential "late adopters" are likely to give the new idea a try. A few "laggards," might never adopt it.
Proposition 19 nearly passed in 2010 with 46 percent of the vote. Let's assume in 2012 a similar initiative wins 51 percent and California becomes the first state to legalize marijuana.
Shortly thereafter, if Rogers is right, states already familiar with marijuana policy issues - including New York - will take a fresh look at marijuana legalization.
New York citizens became familiar with marijuana issues during the debate leading up to the state officially reducing the possession of a small amount of marijuana for personal use from a criminal act to a finable civil infraction.
Other potential early adopters include Alaska and Nevada, where past attempts to legalize marijuana failed but medical marijuana laws have been adopted, and those states that have approved the use of marijuana for medical purposes: Arizona, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Michigan, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington State and the District of Columbia. Legislatures in Connecticut, New Hampshire and Minnesota passed medical marijuana bills only to have them vetoed by the governors.
Other states that have reduced the possession of a small amount of marijuana for personal use from a criminal act to a finable civil infraction are also early adopter candidates. In addition to several of the above states, these include: Massachusetts, Mississippi, Nebraska, North Carolina and Ohio.
After watching what happens in these early adopter states, according to Rogers, the remaining "late adopter" states will finally consider whether or not to legalize and regulate the personal use of small amounts of marijuana in a manner similar to the way alcohol and tobacco are now regulated.
The marijuana legalization debate in California is a public education process in which fear of the unknown is being replaced with understanding. Ethan Nadelmann, director of the Drug Policy Alliance, puts it this way, "The greatest challenge is to break the taboo on vigorous, honest and open debate about all drug policy options, that's what drug war advocates most fear." And that is exactly the service Proposition 19 delivered last year in California. It got people talking about the issue in an open and honest way.
In the weeks leading up to the vote, scores of newspapers across the state ran hundreds of news and editorial stories, some in favor and some against legalization. Millions of voters were called upon to think long and hard about the costs and benefits of legalization.
The California State Firefighters Association, the Association of Drug Court Professionals, and the National Black Churches Initiative opposed the initiative. Supporters included many state and local elected officials, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Black Police Association.
As long as no one knows how to curb America's urge to use alcohol, tobacco - or marijuana - legalization and regulation is a common sense alternative to the current, endless drug war. Wars, both foreign and domestic, are easy to start and hard to stop. For this reason, California is doing the entire nation and the people of New York a great service by seeking common sense drug control policies that will greatly reduce criminal violence, increase tax revenues and permit sensible regulation of a substance that is now acquired through illicit, underground channels.
Ronald Fraser, Ph.D., writes on public policy issues for the DKT Liberty Project, a Washington-based civil liberties organization. Write him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.