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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - California voters soundly rejected a ballot measure on Tuesday that would have made it the first state to legalize marijuana for recreational use.
The nation's eyes were on Proposition 19 because legalization would have put the state at odds with federal drug laws and the Obama administration said it would continue to prosecute people in California for possessing or growing marijuana.
A maverick move by California could also have inspired other states, as has been the case with medical marijuana.
In 1996, California led the nation with a ballot measure approving cannabis for medical purposes and 13 other states have since followed suit.
Passage of Prop 19 would also have had a financial impact because it cleared the way for local governments to regulate the "business side" of marijuana, including commercial cultivation and taxation.
Prop 19 supporters argued that ending prosecutions for marijuana possession would free up law enforcement resources and strike a blow against drug cartels, much as repealing the prohibition of alcohol in the 1930s crushed bootlegging by organized crime.
Supporters also asked voters to consider that marijuana generates an estimated $14 billion in sales annually in the state, revenue they considered ripe for taxation, especially at a time of deep budget deficits in California.
But with nearly half of the vote counted, 56 percent of Californians voted "no," while 44 percent were in the "yes" camp.
Supporters took the defeat in stride.
"The cannabis movement has been here, literally here in Oakland, since the 1960s and it's not going anywhere," said John Decker, 26, a pizza restaurant worker.
Critics of Prop 19, including many in law enforcement, warned of various social harms of legalizing cannabis, from declines in production and academic achievement to a rise in traffic and workplace accidents.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said last month he would "vigorously enforce" federal drug laws in California if Prop 19 passed.
That seemed to loom large over voters on Tuesday.
"The legalization of marijuana I approve of but my only issue is that the federal government won't recognize what the state of California does," said Elaine Ricci, 56, a paralegal in San Francisco. "So I wish we could go to the federal level on that instead of just the state level."
That probably will not happen any time soon, judging by the reaction to Tuesday's vote by the nation's top drug official.
"Californians recognized that legalizing marijuana will not make our citizens healthier, solve California's budget crisis or reduce drug related violence in Mexico," said Gil Kerlikowske, the White House "drug czar."
Additional reporting by Noel Randewich in San Francisco and Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by John O'Callaghan