by Steve Elliott
This week, a ballot initiative to legalize marijuana possession by adults qualified for the California ballot. The Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis Act of 2010 is coming up for a vote.
While all the standard, well-worn pot jokes and cliches were quickly pressed into service, it’s becoming obvious that unlike failed legalization initiatives in the past (of which California has had at least two), the debate will this time center around money.
California has once again become the focal point of a long-running battle over liberalizing the pot laws. Observers predict plenty of money will be spent, by both sides, in an attempt to either launch or squash what many see as an inevitable national trend.
The cultural and financial landscape has changed a lot since legalization was last on the California ballot in 1996, especially since medical marijuana passed that same year and helped to reshape popular perceptions of the herb’s usefulness.
The pace of change was given new impetus by the Obama Administration’s announcement last year that federal drug agents are being instructed to lay off pot patients and providers in states where medical marijuana is legal.
A big selling point of the pro-legalization side of the argument is that vast amount of revenue that cash-strapped California cities and counties could reap if the state legalizes and taxes the herb.
The grim fact of the matter is, California is broke. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger recently had to hand out IOU’s instead of paychecks to state employees. And barring some unforeseen economic miracle, there’s seemingly no easy way out of the economic morass.
Enter the burgeoning marijuana industry. Looking at just the tip of the iceberg – the legal, medical portion of the market – it quickly becomes obvious that there is a huge demand for quality cannabis, and that there is enormous economic potential.
The initiative (PDF) would legalize possession, sharing and transport of up to an ounce of pot for personal use by adults 21 and older. Marijuana could be privately grown in spaces of up to 25 square feet.
Marijuana use would still be banned in public places and in the presence of minors.
Local governments, but not the state, could impose marijuana taxes to raise revenues. Cities and counties could authorize cultivation, transportation and sale of pot, and in a controversial provision, could also locally ban marijuana.
Legalizing marijuana for all adults would, first of all, help to revive the sagging agricultural sector of California’s economy. But beyond that obvious effect, there are many other positives that could come with legalization.
Police, already strained to the limits of their manpower and budgets, could at last focus on actual crimes. Enforcement costs would drop, and perhaps more importantly, the critically frayed relationship between the law enforcement community and marijuana users could finally start some sort of healing process.
And, of course, taxing marijuana could bring in enormous revenue. According to the California Board of Equalization, a $50 per ounce tax on pot could bring in $1.4 billion to the state’s coffers – and the decreased costs of investigation, prosecution and incarceration would add several billion more on top of that.
If the measure passes – and current polling shows it enjoying around 56 percent support – California would become the first state to legalize, rather than decriminalize (reduce the penalties to civil fine levels).
The initiative’s main backer, medical marijuana magnate Richard Lee of Oakland, has already spent at least $1.3 million on the effort, according to the Los Angeles Times. Most of the money so far has been spent on a professional signature-gathering effort; Lee has also assembled a crack team of campaign consultants including Chris Lehane, a veteran of the Clinton Administration.
According to Lehane, the legalization effort will include a significant online component. “There’s the potential to raise significant online resources,” he said.
Some sectors of the California marijuana community oppose the initiative – some because of the tax issue, others because of the ability of local governments to restrict marijuana, and yet others because “we like the scene the way it is now.”
But pragmatically speaking, while we’re waiting for a perfect law to come along, people are still getting busted – and in ever-increasing numbers.
Stephen Gutwillig, California director of the Drug Policy Alliance, said the increase in misdemeanor marijuana arrests, which tripled between 1990 and 2008, is an urgent reason to legalize now.
“It really is on a scale that we have never seen,” he said.