After navigating through a heated election year, millions of Americans will flock to the polls on November 8. In the state of California, voters will decide on more than who the next president will be; they’ll also get to choose whether or not to legalize recreational marijuana for people over the age of 21. A similar bill failed to pass in 2010 and California marijuana advocates are eager for another chance to change the legal status and stigma against the substance in their state.
The ballot measure known as Proposition 64 will be an important vote for the most-populous state in the United States. A popular American saying is “As California goes, so goes the country.” Indeed, other states will be carefully watching the results of this vote – and its fallout – as California is the sixth largest economy in the world. For cannabis in California, though, the path to legalization has been a long and winding one.
Ever-Changing Laws in the Golden State
Although this year may end with complete legalization of cannabis in California, marijuana laws in the state have been shifting over a period of time. In 2010, California reduced the penalty of possessing one ounce of cannabis to a misdemeanor (a crime that carries a similar weight to having committed a traffic violation), subject to a small fine and no charges to the individual’s criminal record. The most newsworthy change in laws, however, came 14 years before.
In 1996, California made headlines by becoming the first state in the U.S. to establish a legal medical marijuana program. In its earliest form, it paved the road for those with cancer, AIDS and other chronic illnesses to grow marijuana for personal consumption. They could also purchase medical marijuana with a doctor’s recommendation. In 2010, the restrictions on medical marijuana were removed, making it easier for patients to legally obtain marijuana to treat a wider variety of medical problems. After observing the medical cannabis journey going on in California, twelve other states followed suit and legalized medical marijuana within their borders.
In the past few years, Alaska, Oregon, Colorado and Washington have passed laws to legalize cannabis for recreational use. This November, voters in California will have the chance to do the same. Despite the fact that medical marijuana has been legally available for two decades, there is a sharp debate currently going on in the state, with anti-marijuana activists and pro-cannabis advocates lining up on either side.
Anti-Cannabis Activists Voice Their Fears
As the vote grows closer, voices on both sides of the debate are growing increasingly louder. On the anti-legalization side, activists cite concerns about public safety. They note statistics such as a study from Washington state which showed an increase in fatal crashes involving drivers who tested positive for marijuana. Some suggest that these numbers are misleading, as marijuana remains present in the bloodstream for weeks after consumption. This means that just because an individual’s blood tests positive for the substance doesn’t mean that they were high at the time of a car accident.
Law enforcement is working to create a breathalyzer-style test for THC that will be able to test for intoxication at the time the test is administered. California also has specially-trained drug recognition officers who can visually evaluate an individual who has been pulled over for driving while intoxicated. The results of the visual evaluation will be combined with blood test results to use for prosecution of DUI offenders.
Those against legalization also have worries about marijuana edibles potentially being attractive to kids. With THC-infused treats running the gamut from gummy bears to chocolate bars, many are concerned that this provides an easy way for children to become introduced to cannabis. As big business moves in and begins operations that have been, up until now, only run by smaller firms, some people have fears of young people being targeted by a new and growing marijuana industry as they have by the tobacco industry.
Former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has taken a stance against the legalization of recreational cannabis, worrying in part about the “legal nightmare” it would create for individuals and dispensaries. The fact that federal law still classifies marijuana as an illegal schedule one drug (akin to heroin or ecstasy) means that grow operations and dispensaries must walk a legal tightrope in order to function. Many banks refuse to work with businesses in the marijuana industry due to federal banking laws that prohibit such business transactions. In addition to this, transportation of cannabis between states where it is fully legal remains illegal.
Advocates Push for Legalization and Education
On the other side, pro-cannabis advocates argue just as strongly for legalized recreational use. California Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom speaks strongly about his anti-prohibition stance. In an interview with PBS, he said that the overall “prohibition has done more harm than the drug itself.” His goal is to put an end the huge amount that taxpayers are being charged to arrest and jail people who grow and possess cannabis. “I want people to operate legally,” Newsom says, “and I want them to be accountable and responsible.”
As for the wellbeing of young people, those in the industry recommend educating kids about cannabis in a similar fashion to alcohol or tobacco. They say that the onus is on adults to properly secure cannabis-infused edibles and talk to kids about these treats being strictly off limits. As more states legalize marijuana – both for medical and recreational purposes – these are discussions that will occur more frequently.
Worries about legalization leading to increased drug use or progression to harder drugs seem to be unfounded, as well. Advocates of marijuana legalization point to studies conducted after the Netherlands loosened their policies surrounding cannabis, allowing its use in licensed “coffee houses” around the country. The studies found that in countries that decriminalized drugs, there was a decrease in drug use among teenagers.
The Netherlands also works to draw a clear distinction between legalized “soft” drugs such as marijuana and illegal “hard” drugs such as cocaine and heroin. This is based on a belief that it’s involvement with the black market that functions as a dangerous gateway – not use of substances like cannabis. Scientists from organizations ranging from the American Journal of Psychiatry to the Institute of Medicine have been able to find no link between use of cannabis and progression to hard drugs.
Advocates also point to the inherent safety of marijuana use – especially when compared to recreational drugs such as alcohol that are legal and free of stigma. According to the Center for Disease Control, “6 people died every day from alcohol poisoning in the US from 2010 to 2012.” Meanwhile, the Drug Abuse Warning Network notes that medical statistics show no deaths induced by marijuana overdose. When marijuana is mentioned in cases of overdose, it has typically been combined with alcohol or other drugs.
Another plus? Legalization will potentially be a major revenue generator for the state of California. Dale Gieringer of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) projects that if retail sales hit $7 billion a year, the financial benefits could be huge. The legalization of recreational marijuana could create more than $1 billion in annual tax revenue for the state. It will also free up law enforcement from the pursuit and arrest of small-time offenders, saving $100 million in that area.
Poll Points to a Yes on Pot
If passed, Proposition 64 will allow adults age 21 and up to “possess, transport, purchase, consume and share up to one ounce of marijuana and eight grams of marijuana concentrate.” Individuals will also be allowed to grow up to 6 plants. There will still be laws against public use and use while operating a motor vehicle. There will also be a 15% tax on all retail sales of marijuana.
With just a few weeks left to go, a poll conducted by USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times indicates that Proposition 64 has an excellent chance of passing. 58% of those polled indicated that they would vote yes on the ballot measure, with 34% responding negatively and 8% still unsure. By comparison, the 2010 ballot measure was voted down by a whopping 53.5%. As the election draws closer, the debate on both sides is growing louder.