LOS ANGELES -- California voters weren't high on a ballot measure aimed at legalizing marijuana and appeared to heed warnings of legal chaos and a federal showdown when they defeated the initiative to make the state the first in the nation to allow the recreational use and sale of pot.
In addition, supporters of Proposition 19 blamed Tuesday's outcome on the conservative leanings of older voters who participate in midterm elections. They acknowledged that young voters had not turned out in sufficient numbers to secure victory but said they were ready to try again in two years.
"It's still a historic moment in this very long struggle to end decades of failed marijuana prohibition," said Stephen Gutwillig, California director for the Drug Policy Project. "Unquestionably, because of Proposition 19, marijuana legalization initiatives will be on the ballot in a number of states in 2012, and California is in the mix."
Tim Rosales, who managed the No on 19 campaign, scoffed at that attitude from the losing side.
"If they think they are going to be back in two years, they must be smoking something," he said. "This is a state that just bucked the national trend and went pretty hard on the Democratic side, but yet in the same vote opposed Prop 19. I think that says volumes as far as where California voters are on this issue."
With more than two-thirds of precincts reporting, Proposition 19 was losing by nine percentage points.
The measure received more yes than no votes in just 11 of the state's 58 counties, getting its strongest support in San Francisco and Santa Cruz counties.
In a sign of what a tough sell it was, an exit poll conducted for The Associated Press showed opposition cutting across gender and racial lines, as well as income and education levels.
The ballot measure even lost in the state's vaunted marijuana-growing region known as the "Emerald Triangle" of Humboldt, Mendocino and Trinity counties.
Voters in three other states cast ballots on medical marijuana-related referenda.
In South Dakota, voters rejected for the second time a measure to legalize marijuana for medical use -- a step taken by California in 1996 and 13 other states since. Oregon voters refused to expand their state's medical marijuana program to create a network of state-licensed nonprofit dispensaries where patients could have purchased the drug.
A medical marijuana measure on Arizona's ballot was too close to call early Wednesday.
California's marijuana proposal would have allowed adults 21 and over to possess up to an ounce of pot, consume it in nonpublic places as long as no children were present, and grow it in small private plots.
It also would have authorized local governments to permit commercial pot cultivation, as well as the sale and use of marijuana at licensed establishments.
Images of marijuana leaves and smashed-up cars and school buses appeared in dueling ads during the campaign that pitted the state's political and law enforcement establishment against determined activists.
Proponents pitched it as a sensible, though unprecedented, experiment that would provide tax revenue for the cash-strapped state, dent the drug-related violence in Mexico by causing pot prices to plummet, and reduce marijuana arrests that they say disproportionately target minority youth.
Popular support was hampered, however, by opposition from some medical marijuana activists, growers and providers, who said they feared the system they have created would be taken over by corporations or lose its purpose.
In the weeks leading to the election, federal officials said they planned to continue enforcing laws making marijuana possession and sales illegal and were considering suing to overturn the California initiative if voters approved it.
"Today, Californians recognized that legalizing marijuana will not make our citizens healthier, solve California's budget crisis, or reduce drug related violence in Mexico," White House Drug Policy Director Gil Kerlikowske said.