This November, exactly 20 years after California became the first in the union to decriminalize medical marijuana, state voters will decide once and for all if they can get high for fun, legally.
Four other states and the District of Columbia have already passed recreational cannabis laws, but if Proposition 64 is approved in California — the sixth largest economy in the world where marijuana is the biggest cash crop — it will send waves of drug-policy sea change across the country.
The creators and supporters of Proposition 64, the Adult Use of Marijuana Act, or AUMA, say the ballot measure will finally legitimize an activity in which millions of Golden State residents already partake. They argue that taxing and regulating the commodity will create a tax boon of a billion dollars a year, benefiting youth programs and law enforcement, and that the new state oversight will set quality-control and pricing standards that would edge out Mexican cartels.
Opponents, however, say the initiative would expose more children to a gateway drug, flood the roads with stoned drivers, and actually increase black-market activity. More immediate is the fact that marijuana remains classified as a Schedule I drug by the Federal Drug Enforcement agency, which puts it in the same category as heroin and ecstasy. U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein and many sheriffs and district attorneys have all come out against the ballot measure.
Nevertheless, Prop. 64 appears poised for voter approval — Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, the California Medical Association, mega-rich tech philanthropist Sean Parker, and many others support it; the “Yes” campaign has vastly out-fundraised the “No” contingent so far, $11.7 million to $173,000; and the most recent polls showed 63.8 percent of respondents favor legalizing recreational marijuana. In 2010, California voters narrowly rejected a similar but less carefully crafted ballot initiative.
Not as measureable has been the steady cultural acceptance of marijuana as a viable medical aid and means for adult relaxation. The seeds of this revolutionary change, planted in the ’60s and ’70s, now seem to be bearing political fruit. In November, eight more states will decide whether to allow recreational or medical marijuana. That most certainly will widen the gap between state and federal marijuana laws, therefore increasing pressure on Congress and the next presidential administration to reconcile the conflicting policies.
Santa Barbara County would surely be affected by the AUMA, as it’s uniquely positioned to grow an even healthier marijuana industry than it already supports. Even now, farmland and greenhouses are being bought by Prop. 64 prospectors. The City of Santa Barbara’s relatively permissive laws allowing medicinal storefronts and delivery services have perhaps paved the way for a recreational sector. And as a tourist destination that boasts world-class wine and beachside sunsets, Santa Barbara may one day, too, be marketed as a premier destination for cannabis connoisseurs.
However, detractors say, all this could also portend the ill effects of a speculative market. Police officials and neighborhood activists point to the crime and lawsuits that came with the city’s initial gold rush of medical marijuana dispensaries, wiped out five years ago in a federal crackdown. Prop. 64 opponents in Santa Barbara also worry that the county and our cities will never see a dime of the new tax dollars that a ravenous state government will be collecting.
With election season underway, Santa Barbara’s politicians are starting to voice strong opinions on both sides of the issue, as it will be up to them whether recreational marijuana businesses are even allowed in their jurisdictions. The medical marijuana community is watching the ballot item with intense interest, curious how it will affect the price of medicine. And casual pot smokers, from those harking back to the 1960s to young adults who just became of legal age, are beginning to wrap their heads around the idea that they might soon be able to stroll into a store and buy a few joints.
By Paul Wellman (file)
IT’S GOT THEIR VOTE: From left, 1st District Supervisor Salud Carbajal, State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson, and Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider all support Proposition 64, in part because marijuana is so prevalent already. “For young people, this train left the station long ago,” said Jackson.
Prop. 64 supporters argue that marijuana would be subjected to many of the same restrictions as those put on alcohol. Only state-licensed businesses could sell it to adults 21 and older through established storefronts or delivery services. People 21 and older could smoke marijuana only at a private residence or permitted business. They could possess up to an ounce of the plant or eight grams of its concentrate (oil or hash), and grow a maximum of six plants in their homes. Smoking in public or while driving would be illegal. Any business that sold alcohol or tobacco would not also be able to sell marijuana. Similarly, businesses allowing on-site consumption could not also allow drinking alcohol or smoking cigarettes.
The initiative covers all forms of marijuana use, including vaping and edibles. It also acknowledges that weed is still illegal in the eyes of the federal government, but it states that the U.S. Department of Justice declared it would not prosecute businesses or individuals complying with state cannabis laws. Most significantly, Prop. 64 would allow city and county governments to ban all recreational marijuana businesses. Personal use and cultivation, as well as transport of marijuana between jurisdictions, could not be outlawed, however.
This entire regulatory framework would be overseen by a new state agency, the Bureau of Marijuana Control. It would issue permits for commercial cultivation, as well as manage quality-control inspections, labeling requirements, tracking procedures, and all the other governmental oversight that comes with selling an intoxicant. The bureau would also regulate medical marijuana.
Prop. 64 would place a state excise tax of 15 percent on retail sales of marijuana, and state cultivation taxes of $9.25 per ounce of flowers and $2.75 per ounce of leaves. The revenue generated — predicted to reach as high as a billion dollars annually — would be funneled to youth programs (60 percent), environmental cleanup of illegal grow sites (20 percent), and initiatives to reduce impaired driving and offset any negative public-health impacts created by the law (20 percent). Marijuana is already on track to become a $6.6 billion market in California by 2020, according to market research firms. The state currently accounts for nearly half of all pot sales in the country, both legal and illegal.
The Tax Foundation, a Washington, D.C.–based think tank, just reported weed revenues in Colorado and Washington have come in higher than expected. For the fiscal year ending June 30, Colorado collected $157 million in marijuana taxes, licenses, and fees, up 53 percent from a year earlier. Oregon collected more than $25 million by July 31, higher than the $18.4 million projected. If every state legalized pot and captured most of the black market, they’d collect a total of $18 billion a year, the Tax Foundation projected. That’s the same amount tobacco taxes generated in 2013.
Sheriff Bill Brown, like many of his colleagues, thinks Prop. 64 is a terrible idea, despite all its promises. The enticement of tax revenue is a predictable formula used by public interest groups to win over voters, he said, but it is a drop in the bucket compared to costs of controlling the problems caused by the law.
Prop. 64 has been attacked for allowing marijuana ads on primetime TV, Sheriff Brown said. Children would be subjected to the Joe Camel effect of cartoon characters peddling pot in the middle of their favorite shows. The ballot argument against Prop. 64 stresses the advertising point more than any other. But proponents call the argument a red herring, explaining federal law, which regulates California’s TV and radio stations, still prohibits advertising a substance the DEA classifies illegal. The true legalities remain murky, and both sides were recently chided in court to tone down their ballot rhetoric on the subject.
For a predictor of what would happen on California’s roads and highways, Brown continued, look no further than what’s occurred in Washington and Colorado, where he said impaired driving rates spiked 48 percent and 36 percent, respectively, after those states legalized recreational marijuana. “It’s been a disaster all the way around,” he declared. Further, there isn’t a reliable way to determine if someone is driving high. Blood analysis doesn’t work, as THC can stay in a person’s bloodstream for weeks, and field sobriety tests are an imperfect science. Brown recalled a recent incident in Ventura where a stoned driver hit and killed a motorist stopped on the side of the road. “We have enough misery and tragedy from substances that are already legal,” Brown summed up. “We don’t need to make it easier to buy another intoxicant.”
By Paul Wellman
WHAT’S AHEAD? Ed Stonefelt, CADA president and CEO, predicted that an early fragmented market of pot purveyors will eventually give way to large cannabis corporations. “It’s going to be the Wild West and a new frontier for Big Marijuana,” he said.
Dr. Cary Matsuoka, Santa Barbara Unified School District’s superintendent, has also seen too many students zombified by heavy marijuana use. Today’s potent product is nothing like the weed of the ’60s and ’70s. “Once they get to the point of self-medicating, they really struggle,” he said. “They really are no longer students. They become so preoccupied with smoking pot that they lose touch with reality.” It’s like a time-out from life, Matsuoka said, and checking out of school for a few months to a year creates a number of long-term consequences. Twenty percent of Santa Barbara Unified’s 11th graders admitted to using marijuana in a 2015 survey.
“I don’t think legalizing, essentially condoning, another intoxicating substance is good for public safety,” said District Attorney Joyce Dudley. For young people, marijuana is too often a gateway drug, she said, and the public cost of dealing with addiction problems and the crimes they engender “will far outweigh any possible tax revenue.” Dudley also believes Prop. 64 would ultimately help cartels, as a taxed product will inevitably create a market for cheaper, untaxed alternatives.
In the last 10 years, the Santa Barbara District Attorney’s Office has dealt with more than 4,200 cases that included one or more marijuana charges. The AUMA would mandate the resentencing of individuals arrested for marijuana offenses now made legal. To reopen those cases would mean a lot of extra work for the department, said Deputy District Attorney John Savrnoch. “You are revisiting an issue that was previously resolved and adding it to an already busy court calendar,” he said.