Coming to our Senses on Pot – Hanna Liebman Dershowitz

As a mother, as a lawyer, and as a taxpayer, I am more excited about voting in the November 2 election than I have ever been about a vote in my life.

That’s because the ballot provides an opportunity to reject and denounce what I know is one of the worst public policy mistakes in American history, namely, the prohibition of marijuana. The victory of Proposition 19 will get the government off the backs of adults who use it responsibly, and, by authorizing local governments to regulate and tax cannabis commerce, will provide a huge benefit to taxpayers. The significance of Proposition 19—if we don’t blow it—will resound well beyond the state.

As a taxpayer, I rejoice at the prospect that local lawmakers will be presented with a rare opportunity to actually fashion important policy, instead of having to follow state mandates, and to keep the revenue they collect. Communities that want nothing to do with regulating and taxing commercial cannabis need not bother, but those who see it as an opportunity for new revenue and jobs will have a splendid chance to bring this industry into the daylight where it belongs. California will truly become a laboratory of democracy.

As a lawyer, I delight in seeing the voters of California stand up to the federal government again in opposition to the calamity of prohibition. We did so the first time in 1932, when voters repealed the state’s alcohol prohibition laws by a vote of 3 to 1, notwithstanding that alcohol remained illegal under federal law. We did it again in 1996 when we passed the medical marijuana proposition, over the same objections we hear today from the feds, and we can do it again this November. Contrary to warnings, the sky didn’t fall then, and it won’t now.

As in 1932, Californians can take pride in telling the feds to take a hike when it comes to imposing its obsolete values on us. Every historian of drug policy knows that marijuana prohibition was enacted three generations ago as an instrument for the oppression of minorities, and, shamefully, it has served that function all too well.

As a mother, I am thrilled that this could open the door to more honest conversations with our children, instead of the tired old propagandizing against illegal drugs, with a deplorable silence on legal ones. Now, perhaps, children can be taught that drugs are all around us, and that they need to learn how to avoid problems with them.

There has been grumbling from the defenders of the status quo, as can be expected. A surprising number of Proposition 19’s opponents have not denounced the idea of legalizing marijuana, but instead just the particulars of this measure. I hope these nervous Nellies recall that Senator Ted Kennedy’s greatest legislative regret was failing to make the deal with Richard Nixon to reform health care in the early 1970s. His reason at the time: he did not think it went far enough. If we waited for a perfect initiative, a perfect bill, a perfect candidate, we would squander our chances to ever show leadership. In this case, the consequences of not passing the proposition include more waste; a bigger wedge between law enforcement and the communities that know marijuana prohibition is hypocritical and damaging; and continuing to abdicate all control to the criminals and cartels who have a monopoly over the state’s $14 billion untaxed marijuana market. We cannot afford to wait for something everyone will agree on.

That said, I have written and analyzed many laws, and Proposition 19 is well crafted. While, as with any new policy, the transition may not be entirely smooth, certainly implementation will be a drastic improvement over the status quo. Any lingering issues could be cleared up with simple tweaks in state or local implementing legislation or otherwise through the normal process of lawmaking. The proposition even includes a provision allowing for legislative amendments that further its aims. Indeed, a bill already has been filed by Assembly Member Ammiano to implement Prop 19 with a statewide framework for regulating many aspects of the legitimated industry.

We constantly hear politicians claiming to have the courage to make “tough decisions,” but somehow when it comes to marijuana they are largely disposed to making the easy call—to not antagonize the police, prison guards, and other politicized public employees who feed at the trough of prohibition. The tough call would be to tell the truth—namely, that there is no prospect that throwing more money at marijuana enforcement will make marijuana go away. It’s here to stay, like it or not.

Proposition 19 is a refreshing dose of common sense. I embrace it.

Hanna Liebman Dershowitz is an attorney who has taught legislation and statutory interpretation, and formerly served as general counsel and senior policy advisor to State Senator Rodney Ellis of Texas. She co-chairs the Legal Subcommittee of the Yes on 19 campaign.

The Actors' Gang


  1. Although I don’t smoke pot, I’m hoping the passage of this bill will help alleviate the problems we’ve had with Mexico. I’m too nervous to travel down there, and perhaps the crime situation will calm down with the passage of this bill.

  2. As a mom who is raising two children with prenatal alcohol exposure who came to be through the fostercare system, I am not so sure that this really is the best of alternatives. People do not tend to use any substance in moderation and they do not tend to use only one substance at a time.

    Spend some time in Children’s Court and see families separated by choices made under the influence. See how the services needed to support women suffering from addictions have dwindled. How few beds there are for mothers to stay with their children and how few services are offered to the foster families raising those children. These are not just families in poverty, but people of every economic and social strata.

    Why add to the mix of drugs available? Why add to the substances that children in utero can get exposed to?

    If we say that this money coming to the state will be used to restore out budget, how much more will we need for treatment and support? We make the assumption that pot will not be harmful, or used excessively. But I think that this is a false assumption.

    My children face a life-long disability that was 100% preventable, if only their birth mother did not drink for the nine months of pregnancy. I would not add more children or families to this mix.

    I will not be voting for this bill.

  3. Well said, Hanna. We should have you writing on ballot propositions every year. This was well reasoned and hit on all the main points. I particularly liked the points you made about waiting for the “perfect” candidate or proposition. It would be like waiting for Godot.

  4. Tyla, the story of what your children are going through (and will continue to go through for their entire lives) is heart-wrenching, but I don’t see the connection between this and legalization of marijuana. The alcohol their mother drank was probably legal, but would she have refrained if it were illegal? There are so many children suffering in similar ways to your children from the effects of illegal drugs, so I’m wondering whether making something illegal does much to prevent (or even substantially reduce) abuse.

    How much connection is there between legality and abuse? Are there pregnant women who are now refraining from marijuana use who would go ahead and expose their fetuses if were legal? We did try banning alcohol during prohibition and it was nothing short of a disaster for the country. I guess I have a lot of questions about this!

  5. I agree with Hanna. Her statement “In this case, the consequences of not passing the proposition include more waste; a bigger wedge between law enforcement and the communities that know marijuana prohibition is hypocritical and damaging; and continuing to abdicate all control to the criminals and cartels who have a monopoly over the state’s $14 billion untaxed marijuana market” should get many a fence sitter to vote yes. Remember when we ended alcohol prohibition we were much better able to manage the issues and tax the income.

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