Prop 19: A Long Strange Trip

by Don Lattin

Talk about your flashbacks…

Blogging about media coverage of Prop. 19 takes my boggled mind back to those heady days in  the spring of 1973 and my own misadventures covering the Berkeley Marijuana Initiative, the first law in the nation that sought to decriminalize pot.

At the time, I was a 19-year-old reporter for the Daily Californian, the independent off-campus student newspaper at UC Berkeley. They say “write what you know,” so the editors at the Daily Cal put me on the marijuana beat.

The highlight of that campaign was the “Win a Kilo” contest, in which the initiative's sponsors raised funds by raffling off 2.2 pounds of an unnamed “green vegetable matter.” I was given the honor of chairing a blue-ribbon panel, which gathered one afternoon in the offices of the Daily Cal to test the kilo's contents. We somehow got it together enough to report in the next day's edition that the green vegetable matter was of the “highest” quality.

Today, nobody seems to be having that much fun covering Prop. 19, which seeks to legalize the recreational use of marijuana in California. What drama there is hinges on infinitesimal electoral fluctuations around the initiative; there have been lots of stories on polls showing the measure losing, winning, then losing again.

The absence of breast-beating on either side of the issue has made space for some thoughtful reporting, though the prevailing reactive (rather than proactive) journalistic ethos means that only a few news outlets have seized the day. The Contra Costa Times, for one, had a balanced piece on how marijuana may actually affect one's health – as opposed to the inflated claims of the medicinal pot proponents.

(Last year, the New York Times had a clear-eyed article that wasn't linked to Prop. 19 but focused on people who have an abusive or addictive relationship with pot.)

In a way, it's hard to grok what's happening–or, better, not happening–around California's marijuana initiative. Prop. 19 is the most talked about measure on Tuesday's ballot, but relatively little advertising money has been spent by either side. A few TV and radio spots have been running in the final week of the campaign, but this refreshing lack of paid propaganda has required voters to get their information from actual news analysis.
 
Imagine that!

For stories probing what the dearth of advertising means, check out these pieces in the Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco Chronicle. There's been a little reporting on religious communities' perspectives on Prop. 19. The New York Times explored the varied responses from black churches and other leaders in the African-American community. Oakland  Bishop Salvatore Cordileone, whose  Roman Catholic diocese is ground-zero for “Oaksterdam University” and the legalization campaign, opposed the measure in an op-ed published by the Chronicle.
 
(Organized crime has the most to lose from the passage of Prop. 19, but it must be stressed here there is no known link between Bishop Sal Cordileone and Godfather Don Corleone.)

As for me, 37 years have passed since I covered the pot beat for the Daily Cal, but I still seem to have trouble taking all this very seriously. I just wrote my own op-ed for the Chronicle on how the passage of Prop. 19 will require all of us aging hippies finally to stop talking about glory days of the 60s counterculture.

And, no, I wasn't stoned when I wrote it.

* * *

Don Lattin is the author of The Harvard Psychedelic Club: How Timothy Leary, Ram Dass, Huston Smith and Andrew Weil Killed the Fifties and Ushered in a New Age for America. (HarperCollins, 2010).

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