No single election contest this fall combines the buzz and history-making potential of California's Proposition 19, which would make the state the first to legalize recreational use of marijuana.
It's the most eye-catching of roughly 150 ballot measures that voters in 35 states will be considering on Nov. 2 — encompassing such volatile topics as abortion, affirmative action, health care and liquor sales.
In the littlest state, with the longest formal name, voters will have a chance to shorten it to just Rhode Island instead of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. Advocates of the change say the full name evokes images of slavery in a state where merchants once prospered from the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
In California, recent polls indicate voters are closely divided over Prop 19, which would allow adults 21 and older to possess up to an ounce of pot for personal use. Individuals could grow marijuana gardens of up to 25 square feet on private property; cities and counties would decide whether to allow sales and taxation of marijuana within their boundaries.
On both sides, passions are high.
Supporters say it's a chance for voters to repudiate a failed war on drugs while enabling the deficit-wracked state to profit from pot taxation. Opponents say Prop 19 would increase youth drug abuse, unleash stoned drivers on the highways and attract out-of-state crime gangs who'd buy California marijuana for resale on their home turf.
"The opposition is clearly running scared in the rhetoric they're using," said Stephen Gutwillig, a Prop 19 backer who is state director of the Drug Policy Alliance. "It's status quo fear-mongering that everyone in the country is all too familiar with."
Susan Manheimer, police chief of San Mateo and president of the state police chiefs association, says Prop 19 would create significant health and safety problems.
"Drug use is damaging to our communities, our youth and everyone we are sworn to serve and protect," she wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle. "How could we make access to drugs easier?"
The California Chamber of Commerce claims Prop 19 would lead to more workplace accidents by forcing employers to let workers smoke pot on the job. Supporters disagree, contending that employers would still be able to punish employees for marijuana consumption that impairs job performance just as they would for alcohol.
President Barack Obama's drug czar, Gil Kerlikowske, opposes Prop 19, as do the leading candidates for statewide office, Democrats as well as Republicans.
Nearly all of the more than $1.3 million spent to place Prop 19 on the ballot came from businesses controlled by Richard Lee, who operates a medical marijuana dispensary and cafe in Oakland. He's the founder of Oaksterdam University, which trains people to run their own medical marijuana businesses.
Proposals to allow medical marijuana are on the ballot in Arizona and South Dakota. With "yes" majorities, they would join 14 other states that have already taken the step.
One of those states, Oregon, has a ballot measure that would set up a pot dispensary system for patients who don't grow their own supply.
Beyond marijuana, there are several ballot measures likely to be contested along liberal/conservative battle lines that could have a spillover effect on other races in those states.
Arizona's ballot includes a measure that would ban affirmative action programs by state and local governments based on race, ethnicity and sex. Colorado voters will decide on an anti-abortion "personhood" amendment — similar to one they rejected in 2008 — that would give unborn fetuses human rights in the state constitution.
And both those states, as well as Oklahoma, have measures on the ballot challenging part of Obama's health care overhaul law — they would prohibit the law's requirement that most Americans get health coverage. The measures are seen as largely symbolic because federal law generally trumps state law.
Among other notable measures:
- In California, where budget crises seem perpetual, one measure would permit passage of a state budget with a simple majority in the legislature, rather than two-thirds support. Other measures would transfer congressional redistricting power from the legislature to a 14-member commission, and suspend the state's landmark clean air law until the state jobless rate drops to 5.5 percent or lower for a year. California's rate for July was 12.3 percent.
- Oklahomans will vote on whether to declare that English is Oklahoma's "common and unifying language" and that all official state actions must be conducted in English. It would bar lawsuits to have state services provided in languages other than English.
- Voters in Arizona, South Carolina, South Dakota and Utah will consider business-backed measures requiring a secret ballot when workers decide whether to form a union. Current federal law allows employers to require a secret ballot; the aim of the four measures is pre-emptive, to undermine a proposed federal law that would allow a majority of employees to create a union by signing cards.
- In Washington state, the ballot features two measures that would privatize the state-run retail liquor system.
- In Illinois, where the two most recent former governors have been convicted on federal charges, a proposed constitutional amendment would give voters the power to recall future governors.
- A measure in Massachusetts would cut the sales tax rate from 6.25 percent to 3 percent, potentially costing the state up to $2.4 billion in annual revenue.
- Florida voters will have a chance to repeal the state's program offering public financing to candidates who abide by spending limits.
- South Dakotans will decide whether to expand the state's no-smoking bans to include bars, video lottery establishments and the casinos in Deadwood.