All posts by Shane_Finneran

November’s marijuana legalization initiative: imperfect, but worthy of your vote

At first glance, the November ballot initiative to legalize marijuana in California seems like a no-brainer. It will boost tax revenues. It will lighten the burden on our prison system and allow law enforcement to focus on more serious issues. It will move billions of dollars out of the hands of drug traffickers and into the legitimate economy, creating thousands of jobs. Overall, it will end the prohibition of a relatively harmless drug that has demonstrated medical benefits and is enjoyed by millions of recreational users.

But a closer look suggests the Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis Act – or RCTC for short – is less than ideal. Even so, I think voters should vote yes on RCTC.

The drive to pass RCTC is being funded by Richard Lee, who operates a dispensary and a nursery in the Oakland area. Lee also runs Oaksterdam University, which offers instruction on topics such as cannabis horticulture and legal issues facing dispensary operators. At least one critic, activist Bruce Cain, calls Lee a “marijuana monopolist” and claims a chief goal of RCTC is to line Lee’s pockets. Indeed, Lee’s empire already pulls in single-digit millions every year – though he says his personal share is only about $50,000 – and does seem well-positioned for growth if RCTC passes.

Potential profits for Richard Lee don’t concern me, though. It’s the way RCTC goes about legalizing marijuana that leaves a few things to be desired.

The initiative includes some long-overdue changes to existing law. If it passes, Californians over 21 would be allowed to grow their own marijuana and to keep what they grow on the premises where they grow it. RCTC would also legalize the possession of up to one ounce of pot outside of those premises. These moves would be major improvements over the current prohibition of non-medicinal growing and holding.

On the other hand, the initiative has some key weaknesses. For example, RCTC stumbles by deferring commercial pot policy to local governments instead of establishing a statewide plan for commercial sales. NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, touches on this weakness in its endorsement of the initiative. “The immediate effect of the passage of this measure would be to protect the individual from arrest if he/she possesses or grows a small quantity of marijuana in the privacy of their own home,” NORML Deputy Director Paul Armentano said in a press release. Longer term, RCTC “will provide local governments with the option to regulate and tax the retail distribution of marijuana to adults in a manner similar to the way society controls alcohol.”

Let me reiterate that: the initiative on the November ballot will make it legal to possess and grow small amounts of marijuana, but would not create a framework to buy, sell, and tax marijuana throughout California. Instead, the initiative would give cities and counties the option to create such a framework on their own.

This local-option approach might be okay with Richard Lee up in Oakland, a city so pot-positive it allows medical marijuana patients to fly out of Oakland International with weed on their person. But what about towns run by conservatives, like San Diego? It seems unlikely that our county’s board of supervisors, for example, would take a sensible and fair approach to marijuana when the board doesn’t even take a sensible and fair approach to issuing food stamps. In fact, just this week, the board began zoning medicinal marijuana dispensaries practically out of existence in the county, even though California voters legalized medical cannabis 14 years ago.

That’s why I prefer a statewide pot policy like the one in HR 2254, the Marijuana Control, Regulation and Education Act, a bill from Democratic state assemblyman Tom Ammiano of San Francisco. As reports, “Ammiano’s bill would impose a $50-per-ounce state levy on pot made available for sale. It also would license private marijuana cultivators and wholesalers and give the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control authority over a legal retail marijuana industry.”

But 2254 is a tough sell in Sacramento, where a majority of our legislators lack the spines to enact legalization themselves. As RCTC gathered momentum in early 2010, Ammiano delayed hearings on 2254 until this fall, apparently hoping the push for the initiative could help his fellow legislators see the light. “We want to see how the legislation can get out in front of the initiative and at the same time be complementary,” Ammiano said. “The initiative does call for more of a patchwork than a uniform state policy, but there may be a way to try to blend those two.”

HR 2254, with its statewide approach, seems like the superior path to legalization. Ammiano’s bill even exempts medical marijuana from taxation, which RCTC does not. Long-time legalization advocates like Ed Rosenthal, aka the Guru of Ganja, and Dennis Peron, whose activism helped Proposition 215 become law in 1996, point out that no other prescription drugs are taxed — so why would it be acceptable to tax medicinal marijuana?

RCTC also does nothing for Californians who are serving time for marijuana-related offenses. Donna Lambert is a San Diego medical marijuana patient and former dispensary operator who was charged with seven felonies by county district attorney Bonnie Dumanis. Though Dumanis’s office retreated after juries acquitted two other dispensary defendants, offering a plea deal that traded the seven felonies for one misdemeanor, Lambert remains concerned about others who weren’t so fortunate.

“I am deeply disappointed that this act does nothing to release the thousands of marijuana prisoners, but in fact actually creates several new levels of punishable crimes,” Lambert said in an email. Lambert says she’ll probably vote for RCTC but hopes that it will be followed by more comprehensive reform.

Under RCTC, anyone who furnishes marijuana to a person aged 18 to 20 could face upt to $1,000 in fines and up to 6 months in jail. A knowledgeable local source told me that about 75% of San Diego’s registered medicinal users are between the ages of 18 and 25, so it seems fair to assume demand is strong among that age group. And since college-age people don’t tend to demand their friends show ID, it’s not hard to imagine a scenario where a 22-year-old shares marijuana with a 20-year-old and ends up in trouble with the law. With this in mind, I think it would make more sense for RCTC to extend legalization to people aged 18 and over, not just 21 and over.

HR 2254 also allows adults to grow up to 6 marijuana plants at a time, while RCTC places a 25-square-foot limit on personal growing space. I’ve never tried to grow tomatoes, let alone marijuana, so I’m not sure which limit makes more sense. But the “Prince of Pot,” Marc Emery – a Canadian who was recently extradited to Seattle and currently faces several years in US federal prison for selling seeds to Americans over the Internet – has said that 25 square feet would be more than enough. In a Cannabis Culture magazine article, Emery crunches the “industry standard” horticulture numbers and concludes that “ANY competent grower can achieve 16 to 40 ounces every 10 weeks in their space, a generous personal or medical amount by any standard.”

Emery calculates that a 25-square-foot indoor growing area could yield up to 5 pounds of marijuana a year at a total cost of about $1,000, or somewhere around $12.50 an ounce. Currently, high-grade marijuana’s selling price at California dispensaries typically equals its street price of about $300 to $400 per ounce. These numbers suggest that current prices include massive profit margins, which I couldn’t help but think of as I left a Banker’s Hill dispensary after a recent visit, just as the man who runs the place was pulling up in a brand new Lexus.

In any case, my thumbs are anything but green and are far more comfortable pressing the spacebar than working the soil – so if RCTC passes and I find myself looking to consume some marijuana, I’ll likely be buying it from somebody. Accordingly, I’m a bit perplexed by RCTC’s deferral to local jurisdictions, which could preserve black markets in areas like San Diego and force legal consumers like me to spend my money in more with-it jurisdictions.

But assuming HR 2254 and its statewide sales plan is out of reach, RCTC strikes me as a weaker but still dramatic improvement in marijuana policy that Californians should support. By voting yes on the Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis Act, we will lead the nation forward in an area where the federal government appears incapable of moving beyond the asinine status quo, even with Democrats in firm control of the executive and legislative branches.

In March 2009, for example, President Obama held a town hall-type meeting in which he invited Americans to submit questions online and vote for their favorites. More than 3 million people voted on more than 13,000 questions, and in three separate categories – budget, health care reform, and green jobs – questions about legalizing marijuana got the most votes.

“I don’t know what this says about the online audience,” Obama said with a forced laugh that instantly marginalized the legalization movement. “The answer is, no, I don’t think that is a good strategy to grow our economy.”

After the event, a reporter complained about Obama’s response to White House press secretary Robert Gibbs. “But, Robert, he didn’t take on the serious issue,” the reporter said. “He made a joke out of it. I mean, there were a lot of questions about legalization of marijuana, not as a job creation program, but just as a serious policy issue. And with what’s happening in Mexico -”

“The president opposes the legalization of marijuana,” Gibbs responded, providing another example of how Obama’s progressivism tends to be limited to the pages of his autobiographies. But the Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis Act, despite its shortcomings, would be a big step forward for marijuana policy – and that gives me hope.