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Despite rejecting Prop. 19, Californians lean toward legalizing marijuana, poll finds

November 4, 2010 |  3:12 pm

California voters rejected Prop. 19, but a post-election poll found that they still lean toward legalizing marijuana for recreational use and, if young voters had turned out as heavily on Tuesday as they do for presidential elections, the result would have been a close call.

The survey, conducted by the polling firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, suggests that California voters had qualms with this initiative, but remain open to the idea. A majority, 52%, said marijuana laws, like alcohol prohibition, do more harm than good.

“There’s a fair amount of latent support for legalization in California,” said Anna Greenberg, the firm’s senior vice president. “It is our view, looking at this research, that if indeed legalization goes on ballot in 2012 in California, that it is poised to win.”

Voters think marijuana should be legalized, 49% to 41%, with 10% uncertain, the poll found, but were evenly split over whether they thought it was inevitable in California.

“The question about legalizing marijuana is no longer when, it’s no longer whether, it’s how,” said Ethan Nadelmann, the executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. “There’s a really strong body of people who will be ready to pull the lever in the future.”

Nadelmann and the Drug Policy Alliance played a key role in the campaign, bringing a late rush of money to help fund a final advertising blitz.

The poll was paid for by Peter B. Lewis, a retired insurance company executive. Lewis donated $159,005 to the Drug Policy Alliance’s campaign for Proposition 19 and was one of the backers of California’s 1996 medical marijuana initiative.

The poll also found that a quarter of those who voted on Proposition 19 had considered voting the other way, suggesting that a different initiative or a different campaign could change the result.

“We have fluidity,” Greenberg said. “The issue does not have the kind of hard and fast kind of polarization that we’ve seen with other so-called moral or social issues.”

Among voters who opposed Prop. 19, 31% said they believe marijuana should be legalized or penalties reduced, but they objected to the some specifics of the initiative.

The poll did not probe what it was about the measure that did not appeal to these voters. “Among the no votes, we’re seeing a significant proportion who we believe will ultimately support marijuana legalization in the future,” Nadelmann said.

Prop. 19 would have allowed adults 21 and older to grow up to 25 square feet of marijuana or possess up to an ounce. But it also included a provision to protect marijuana users from discrimination that opponents, including the Chamber of Commerce, ridiculed. They claimed it would allow nurses and bus drivers to come to work stoned, which the campaign disputed.

The poll found some evidence that this issue may have cut into the initiative’s support. Voters said by 50% to 44% that employers should have the right to fire workers who test positive for marijuana even if they arrive sober and ready to work.

The initiative was the brainchild of Richard Lee, a medical marijuana businessman in Oakland who paid professionals to draft the measure and made the key decisions on its approach.

Lee chose to give cities and counties the power to approve marijuana sales, not the state Legislature, a system that would allow a patchwork approach much like medical marijuana. The poll suggested that voters prefer that local control approach, finding that 44% trust city and county governments more to control marijuana, while 38% trust state government more.

Greenberg Quinlan Rosner surveyed 796 voters who participated in the election by phone between Oct. 31 and Nov. 2. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

-- John Hoeffel

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