In 1996 California became the first state to legalize medical marijuana.
In the subsequent 20 years, numerous other states have passed similar initiatives, with Alaska, Colorado, Oregon and Washington going a step further and legalizing the recreational use of marijuana. Now a piece of legislation up for vote in November could have the Golden State joining that list — and a big factor on whether or not pot goes legal in California will hinge on how Latinos vote.
This is why groups on both sides of the issue are heavily courting Hispanic voters before the vote on Proposition 64 on November 8.
Last summer the Census Bureau revealed that Latinos edged out whites as the largest ethnic group in California (14.99 million to 14.92 million) – making it the first large state to lose its white plurality – and the issue of marijuana is one that sharply divides the community. A study conducted by the Public Policy Institute of California last year found that while support for legalizing marijuana was up from 2010, a majority (56 percent) said it should not be legal.
“The Latino vote is critical to deciding this issue,” said Scott Chipman, the Southern California chair for the anti-marijuana group Citizens Against Legalizing Marijuana. “We are working with other groups to do outreach in this community. We’re distributing literature in Spanish and talking to parents and people in families about the potential of their kids becoming users and addicts.”
Activists and analysts on both sides of the issue say that there is a generational divide when it comes to how Hispanics feel about marijuana.
“There are a lot of Latinos, like my mom, who are going to vote, but are not in favor of legalization,” Eunisses Hernandez, a policy associate at the Drug Policy Alliance in California. “These feelings come from the stigma associated with marijuana in the community that stems from the early days of prohibition.”
Latinos in California, and in particular Mexican-Americans, have long been depicted as having a close relationship with marijuana. From Mexican Revolutionary Pancho Villa and his cross border raids to Cheech and Chong’s infamous stoner film “Up in Smoke,” there has been that association with the Hispanic community and it is one that many older Latinos would like to shun.
This stigma – paired with the Latino community’s tendency to vote conservative on law and order issues and the surge in registrations among those who oppose Donald Trump – has anti-pot activists hopeful that they will win the demographics vote.
“The Latino vote was important in defeating Proposition 19 in 2010 and they’ll definitely be important in defeating Proposition 64,” Chipman said. Proposition 19 was a ballot initiative to legalize recreational marijuana and had much of the same language as the initiative currently up for vote.
Groups like the DPA and others in favor of Proposition 64, however, believe that the surge in voter registration will actually be a boon for their cause as it will bring out younger, more liberal voters who overwhelmingly support legalization.
“The role of young Latinos, of the millennial generation, is to start a conversation with their parents about what criminalization of marijuana has done to our community,” Hernandez said, citing that many the Latinos incarcerated in California (42 percent of the state’s overall prison population) are locked up for minor drug offenses.
Hernandez admitted that convincing people like her mother to vote in favor of the controversial ballot initiative is going to be a tough sell, but if they can at least get them not to vote at all on the issue it would be a help.
“It’s going to take a lot to get them to vote for this,” she said. “It took me a long time for my own mother just to accept where I worked.”
Still, with recent legislation in states like Colorado and Washington that legalized marijuana and a changing attitude across the country in regards to the drug, Hernandez feels positive that Proposition 64 will pass come November.
“We’re in a good moment right now,” she said.
Follow Andrew O'Reilly on Twitter @aoreilly84.