California: Caught in the weeds?

This is the fourth piece of a weekly series in which the Progressive Jewish Alliance looks at the propositions on this year’s California ballot in light of the weekly Torah portion.

After stone-throwing media ads from Jerry Brown and Meg Whitman this election season, you would think the two California gubernatorial candidates were constitutionally incapable of agreeing on a single issue.  Not so!  As part of a larger “tough on crime” stance, Whitman has proclaimed she’s “firmly against Proposition 19.”  More colorfully, Brown has declared, “We got to compete with China.  If everybody’s stoned, how the hell are we going to make it?” 

Meg and Jerry may agree on this one, but Proposition 19 has been an intense source of debate among progressives and policy wonks alike.

Fortunately for us, grappling with complexity and nuance are hallmarks of Jewish religious text and tradition.  Evidence of Judaism’s love of debate can be found in any page of Talmud, replete with rabbinical volleys across the generations, or in this week’s Torah portion (parshah), which celebrates the delightfully imperfect Abraham and Sarah. 

Proposition 19 proponents claim the initiative will, “Put police priorities where they belong,” and, “Generate billions of dollars in [state tax] revenues.”  They argue legalization will save $1 billion annually from reduced arrest, prosecution and incarceration of drug users and will reduce cross-border narcotics trafficking controlled by Mexican cartels.  Proposition 19 continues prohibition of and penalties for driving under the influence.  Proposition 19 also preserves criminal justice system referrals to drug treatment programs for certain individuals.

Perhaps the most powerful arguments in favor of Proposition 19 are made by those studying the disparate impact that criminalization has historically had on communities of color.  The Drug Policy Alliance reports: “In Los Angeles County, with nearly ten million residents and over a quarter of California’s population, the marijuana possession arrest rate for blacks is 332% higher than the arrest rate for whites. Blacks make up less than 10% of L.A. County’s population, but they constitute 30% of the marijuana possession arrests.”  This pattern is repeated across California:

Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee has used the term “scarlet letter” to describe the stigmatizing effects of a drug possession record.  Even if you can pay the $450 plus in fines and court costs for a possession charge, the recorded misdemeanor “drug crime” follows you like a plague, inhibiting your ability to rent an apartment, enter college, get a student loan or find a job.  Governor Schwarznegger recently signed sentencing reforms into law, but it is too soon to tell what impact they will have.

Judaism abhors the idea that a person could be stigmatized for life.  Rather, great value is assigned to the practice of repentance or tshuvah, translated literally as, “Returning from evil” (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentance, 2:2-5).  Jewish law also suggests that public policy reflect the Biblical notion that neither the community nor any individual should cause another to sin.  This concept is based on Leviticus 19:14 (‘and you shall not place a stumbling block before the blind’), understood by the Rabbis and codified by Maimonides as the principle of not making one’s fellow a criminal (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Murder and the Preservation of Life, 13:14).

The opponents of Proposition 19 make their own set of powerful arguments.  For starters, they claim Attorney General Eric Holder’s commitment to enforce the Controlled Substances Act even if Proposition 19 passes means that California could become embroiled in costly legal battles and lose billions of dollars designated for states that follow federal “drug free” requirements.  And, the Rand Corporation has issued a set of studies that question whether legalization would have any meaningful impact on Mexican drug cartels and whether legalization actually provides budget relief, given the unforeseen public health impacts that could result from increased usage.

The San Diego Union-Tribune pointed out that Proposition 19’s imprecise drafting could create an unmanageable patchwork of local regulations and taxes:

“[Proposition 19] would allow every one of California’s nearly 480 cities and each of its 58 counties to develop their own regulation and tax schemes for the cultivation, processing, distribution, transportation and sale of marijuana. In San Diego County alone, that could mean 19 separate sets of regulations and taxes[]. That provision alone is an invitation to law enforcement chaos.”

In the end, Proposition 19’s imperfections are endemic of the ballot initiative process itself, which is ripe for critique and even an overhaul.  Perhaps that is why pairing a proposition with each week’s Torah portion has felt so apt to us.  In politics and religion, our best and highest calling may be to engage in the spirit of intellectual debate – to test, question, study, argue and sometimes resolve the complexities of our time. 

The Progressive Jewish Alliance has wrestled with the issues and we’ve taken strong positions. We’ve examined and discussed and decided: 

• Yes on Proposition 19

No on Proposition 23

Yes on Proposition 24

Yes on Proposition 25/No on Proposition 26

We hope our arguments have been compelling.  But when you enter that voting booth next Tuesday, it will be up to you.  Until then, California, get inspired, get informed, and get to the polls. 

Happy voting!