Tag Archives: legalization

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 calpotnews.com 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.

Why Don’t The Gubernatorial Candidates Support Marijuana Legalization?

This was a particularly depressing article from the Sacramento Bee:

All three leading guv hopefuls oppose legalizing weed for recreational use.

“I’ve already indicated that that’s not a provision I am likely to support,” Attorney General and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brown told a gathering of law enforcement officials in Sacramento this week. “I have been on the side of law enforcement for a long time, and you can be sure that we will be together on this November ballot.”

GOP candidate Meg Whitman’s spokeswoman, Sarah Pompei, said Whitman is “absolutely against legalizing marijuana for any reason. … She believes we have enough challenges in our society without heading down the path of drug legalization.”

Steve Poizner’s communications director, Jarrod Agen, said Poizner “feels we need an across-the-board tax cut to reignite our state’s economy, not an attempt to smoke our way out of the budget deficit.”

These statements are damning evidence of just how disconnected from California public opinion these three candidates are – 56% of Californians support legalizing and taxing marijuana, according to the Field Poll from April 2009. Support for legal marijuana is an idea fully in the mainstream of the state’s electorate, especially in the tightly regulated forms proposed in the legalization initiative that qualified for the November ballot last week, or in Assemblymember Tom Ammiano’s AB 390.

It also suggests a certain lack of seriousness about exploring all reasonable options to deal with the state’s budget deficit. Jerry Brown is particularly disappointing on this, even if his stance isn’t at all surprising. Brown has gone around the state pointing out, correctly, that we spend too much money on prisons at the cost of other core services, such as schools. Brown also signed a bill in his first year as governor in 1975, sponsored by then-State Senator George Moscone, decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana.

Unfortunately, in recent years Brown has been totally unwilling to revisit the sentencing policies that produce those high prison costs. He opposed Proposition 5 in 2008, which would have provided sensible sentencing reform and was widely supported by drug treatment professionals. That didn’t move Jerry Brown then and doesn’t appear to move him now.

Brown’s framing of his opposition to legalization – that he’s “on the side of law enforcement” – is both inaccurate and profoundly unhelpful. Groups such as Law Enforcement Professionals Against Prohibition (LEAP) are strongly supportive of legalization. Many local police agencies and county prosecutors would welcome the ability to shift their attention away from pot and toward actual threats to public safety, especially at a time when police budgets are under stress.

Meg Whitman and Steve Poizner are no less out of touch for their opposition, even if it is also unsurprising. Both Whitman and Poizner apparently believe they must hold the line against ANY new tax, in order to justify their reckless plans for massive new tax giveaways to their wealthy friends.

All three candidates are turning down what could be as much as $1.4 billion (according to the Board of Equalization study of AB 390) in desperately needed budget savings, coming from new taxes on marijuana.

In the absence of leadership from the gubernatorial candidates, Californians will have to lead the way themselves this November by voting to approve the legalization initiative.

An Idea Whose Time Has Come

Yesterday Richard Lee of Oaksterdam University announced that he has gathered over 680,000 signatures to place an initiative to legalize, tax, and regulate marijuana on the November 2010 ballot:

The petition drive, which was run by a professional signature-gathering firm, collected more than 680,000 signatures, 57% more than the 433,971 valid signatures needed to put it on the ballot, said Richard Lee, the measure’s main proponent.

“It was so easy to get them,” Lee said. “People were so eager to sign.”

The initiative would also allow cities and counties to adopt their own laws to allow marijuana to be grown and sold, and the localities could impose taxes on any aspect of marijuana production and sales. It would make it legal for adults over 21 years old to possess up to an ounce of marijuana and to grow it in a 25-square-foot area for personal use.

Because this particular initiative creates a “local option” for taxation, on top of a statewide legalization, it is hard to quantify exactly how much money this would raise. Initiative proponents cite the Legislative Analyst who says it could generate up to $1.4 billion in new revenue, in addition to an unknown but likely significant amount of savings in prison and court costs.

Although some other legalization initiatives are floating around out there, this is the only one that’s expected to make the 2010 ballot. And despite some earlier debate over whether 2010 or 2012 was the best time to go the ballot, other marijuana legalization advocates plan to support this initiative fully and work to pass it.

They may be joined by the rest of the state:

Polls have shown that a majority of California voters support legalization. A Field Poll taken in mid-April found that 56% of voters in the state and 60% in Los Angeles County want to make legalize and tax pot as a way to help solve the state’s fiscal crisis. In October, a poll taken by a nonpartisan firm for the Marijuana Policy Project found 54% support in the county.

A poll taken for the initiative’s proponents by EMC Research, an opinion research firm in Seattle, found that 51% of likely voters supported it based on language similar to what will be on the ballot, but support increased to 54% when they were read a more general synopsis.

Those numbers are no slam dunk. But they also show that this is clearly an idea whose time has come. California has proven that the costs of the war on drugs are unacceptably high, and that we need to bring that stupid and pointless conflict to an end before it bankrupts the state.

There’s still 11 long months to go between now and the November 2010 election. But I’m hoping that Californians are ready to take the national lead in legalizing and taxing marijuana as part of a more rational and sensible approach to drug policy, prison reform, and the budget crisis.

Marijuana Decriminalization Goes Mainstream

Major policy changes often happen as a result of a sudden shift that is, in fact, not so sudden at all. Public attitudes and behavior steadily change over time, but a political system whose practitioners have made up their minds on a topic years ago, before that change became apparent, are typically unwilling to accept the new reality. Until something changes – a new generation of leaders takes power, a financial crisis causes people to become more open to new ideas. Or perhaps it’s just as simple as an idea whose time has come, an idea whose wisdom can no longer be denied.

We’re at such a turning point with marijuana. One of the state’s main cash crops, the economic base of many small towns in the North Coast (and of a growing but hard to track number of metropolitan households), marijuana is already widely available in California, whether on the black market or at a quasi-legal dispensary. As more and more Californians are comfortable with the use of marijuana, even if they do not partake of it themselves, the decades-old drug war has become seen as more and more absurd when it comes to marijuana.

When an April Field Poll found 56% of Californians back marijuana legalization, it became only a matter of time before the topic became a fully mainstream subject, deemed appropriate for “serious” conversation at everything from public policy summits to the dinner table.

And so this week California is witnessing a fundamental shift in marijuana policy, where for perhaps the first time it really is a question of “when,” and not “if,” the sale and use of marijuana will become legal in California.

The biggest news comes from the federal government, where Attorney General Eric Holder has followed through on his early signals and announced the Justice Department will no longer prosecute people for using medical marijuana in accordance with their state’s laws. Holder is not yet embracing full legalization, of course. But this is a significant shift that recognizes states do have a right to innovate when it comes to drug policy. Whether the Obama Administration intends it or not, the new policy will be further evidence that a strict federal “War on Drugs” is no longer desirable or viable.

Here in California, more fundamental changes are under way. As a judge rules LA DA Steve Cooley’s attack on dispensaries to be invalid, the movement for full legalization is well under way. Tom Ammiano’s bill to legalize, regulate, and tax marijuana, AB 390, will get its first hearing in the Assembly next week.

Arnold Schwarzenegger, speaking at a bill signing ceremony in Merced yesterday, said he is “basically opposed” to legalization but believes it’s time to have a debate about the issue. In Arnold-speak that says he doesn’t see legalization as a political loser, even if he’s not quite willing to go there himself. His comments show that legalization has gone from being a sensible idea on the fringes of our political discourse to something we can debate as easily and naturally as, say, water policy.

Meanwhile, armed with the Field Poll results – as well as the recent Gallup Poll which found support for legalization was highest in the Western US, with moderates and independents nationwide about split on the matter, California activists are not waiting around for the legislature or the governor to act.

Instead they’re going directly to the ballot. TaxCannabis.org is the headquarters for the effort to put an initiative on the November 2010 ballot to treat marijuana much like alcohol. The initiative would legalize possession of up to one ounce for all adults over 21, and give local governments the ability to determine whether to more broadly legalize and tax marijuana themselves. It would essentially create a “local option” instead of a statewide free-for-all.

It’s not yet clear if they have the money or the volunteers to put this on the ballot. And the fact that local governments would be the ones implementing the policy, instead of a single statewide standard, might limit the savings in prison spending and the overall tax revenues created. But it’s a clear step forward for sensible drug policy, one whose time has clearly come.