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California struggles with pot legalization

  1. Balzafire
    Marijuana is, in all likelihood, the largest cash crop in the United States, at an estimated $35.8 billion a year. Corn, at $23.3 billion is second. Pot brings in more than grapes in California, more than cotton in Alabama, more than tobacco in the Carolinas. Nationally, marijuana earns more than corn and wheat combined.

    A 2006 report by NORML, a pro-marijuana legalization organization, used U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration estimates to arrive at the $35.8 billion figure. The DEA, in its cannabis eradication program, estimated that there were 22 million pounds of marijuana in the U.S. that it had not eradicated. Using a conservative figure for the going price of marijuana -- roughly $100 an ounce - NORML obtained the estimate.

    Of course, there is no official figure because, with the exception of the 14 states and the District of Columbia where it is permitted for prescribed medical use, marijuana is illegal.

    That could change for at least one state this November 2. The Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis Act of 2010, known as Proposition 19, is on the ballot in California.

    If approved by the state electorate, the law would authorize local governments, if they choose, to regulate and tax the commercial cultivation of the plant. Commercial growth would remain illegal in those cities and counties that did not opt in. Nonetheless, the law would allow individuals 21 years and older to grow 25 square feet of marijuana plants, process and possess the substance, and transport and share up to an ounce.

    Passage is no sure thing. Campaigns for and against Prop 19 have been neck-and-neck in the polls, with the legalization side showing a slight edge through the summer. But an announcement last week by the U.S. Department of Justice is likely to have an impact on the outcome this November 2, although how much of one remains to be seen.

    U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said the Department of Justice strongly opposes Prop 19 and intends to enforce the federal Controlled Substances Act in all states, including California.

    Holder was responding to a letter from former DEA chiefs who oppose legalization and urged the government to take a stand.

    "We will vigorously enforce the CSA against those individuals and organizations that possess, manufacture or distribute marijuana for recreational use, even if such activities are permitted under state law," Holder wrote.

    Opponents of Prop 19 hailed the Attorney General's statement as the impetus they need to defeat the measure.

    "It takes the smoke right out of their hookah," said Roger Salazar, a spokesman for the No On 19 campaign.

    Salazar said the threat of action by the federal government against anyone involved in selling marijuana undermines proponents' promise of big tax revenues for the state following legalization, and that situation will drain support for Prop 19.

    NORML issued a report on the California initiative in 2009, which claimed that the state could realize over $1.2 billion annually in tax revenues and reduced enforcement costs by legalizing marijuana.

    According to NORML, a $50 per ounce excise tax - roughly a dollar per joint -- would yield between $770 and $900 million per year, and another $240 to $360 million would be gained in sales taxes. In addition, the state would save over $200 million in enforcement costs for arrests, prosecutions and prison.

    Basing their estimates on the experience of the California wine industry, NORML says the marijuana industry, replete with Amsterdam-style coffee houses generating jobs and tourism, would bring in four times as much as retail sales. Industrial hemp could generate another $3.4 billion a year, the organization said.

    While opponents say the Department of Justice's statement cripples such expectations, proponents say they're wrong.

    Tom Angell, spokesperson for Yes On 19, said the Attorney General's position "very much helps us."

    "Californians aren't going to let politicians from Washington tell them how to vote," Angell said. "Just the opposite. It will feed into the widespread antiestablishment mood out there."

    Many members of California's law enforcement community oppose Prop 19 and are pleased with Holder's stance.

    Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, accompanied by two former DEA chiefs and the district attorney, released Holder's letter at a news conference Friday.

    "He is saying it is an unenforceable law and the federal government will not allow California to become a rogue state on this issue," Baca said. "You can't make a law in contradiction to federal law as a state. Therefore Proposition 19 is null and void and dead on arrival."

    But there are also members of the law enforcement community in favor of Prop 19.

    "As we saw with the repeal of alcohol prohibition, it takes action from the states to push the federal government to change its policies," Joseph McNamara, a retired San Jose chief of police, said in a release.

    "Passing Proposition 19 in California will undoubtedly kick start a national conversation about changing our country's obviously failed marijuana prohibition policies. If the federal government wants to keep fighting the nation's failed 'war on marijuana' while we're in the midst of a sagging economic recovery and two wars it just proves that the establishment politicians' priorities are wrongly focused on maintaining the status quo," he said.

    Former LAPD deputy chief Stephen Downing responded directly to Sheriff Baca.

    "It's shocking to hear that Sheriff Lee Baca said that he will disregard the will of the voters if Proposition 19 passes," Downing said. "When I was policing the beat with LAPD, I enforced marijuana laws that I disagreed with, simply because it was my job to enforce the law. Sheriff Baca should focus on doing his job instead of spending his time chest beating at press conferences and undermining the will of the voters of California. He should be ashamed of himself. Police in California have no obligation to enforce federal law."

    Salazar from No On 19 noted that almost all of California's newspapers came out against the measure even before the Attrorney General's statement.

    The most recent poll, in early October by Reuters/Ipsos, showed those opposed gaining a lead for the first time, at 53 percent. The poll also preceded Holder's remarks. There are no results yet available from polls taken after the federal government's opposition was announced.

    Proponents dismissed the latest poll as an anomaly.

    "Through the summer, it's been 47 percent for and 42 percent against," said Allen St. Pierre, executive director of NORML. "The last California field poll, which we consider the gold standard, had us actually gaining two points. It's looking pretty strong."

    "It's still pretty much neck-and-neck," Salazar said, prior to the Department of Justice announcement. "But that works in our favor, because it means that a lot of people are still undecided. When people are undecided or uncertain, they tend to vote No when they get in the booth."

    Also prior to Holder's statement, Salazar said that the notion of big tax revenues pouring in because of legalization was mere speculation, because Prop 19 sets no tax rate and, since it allows jurisdictions to opt in or out, there is no way of knowing how much revenue would be generated.

    "The way the proposition is written it is less than vague," Salazar said. "It proposes to regulate, control and tax cannabis, but in reality it does none of those things."

    Salazar said that, judging how the state's cities and counties reacted to the medical marijuana law passed in 1996, there will be little control and not a lot of tax revenue.

    There are 536 jurisdictions in California and the great majority of them, said Salazar, have never adopted laws to tax and regulate medical marijuana.

    "I expect much the same thing will happen if Prop 19 is approved," Salazar said. "If a county or city takes no steps to regulate and tax marijuana, it will remain illegal to sell it in that jurisdiction. But marijuana will still be legal, to grow, to possess, to process, to store, to smoke, to transport and to share with friends everywhere in the state."

    Salazar said it will create a "marijuana free-for-all" atmosphere with no regulation and, for most jurisdictions, no tax revenues.

    Salazar said that, of the opposition coalition, many are against marijuana because they consider drug use morally objectionable. Others oppose it on health grounds. But No On 19 chooses to fight the proposal on its legal and economic merits, or lack thereof.

    "If they had written the law correctly, if it provided for a statewide regulatory system, with uniform standards and uniform taxation, then we might be having a different conversation right now," Salazar said. "But the law is poorly written and will only cause headaches."

    Proponents, however, say the measure will be adjusted and bolstered once it becomes law.

    Democratic State Assemblyman Tom Ammiano has introduced legislation that would establish a uniform statewide regulatory system for marijuana under the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control. The bill would leave cities and counties the option to regulate marijuana sales themselves.

    Ammiano has introduced legislation to deal with legalized commercial marijuana before, only to see it die in the state legislature. But he has pledged to introduce up-dated legislation to ensure that marijuana is taxed for the benefit of residents.

    In anticipation of the passage of Prop 19, a number of California cities -- including San Jose, Oakland, Long beach, Richmond and Sacramento - have initiatives on the Nov. 2 ballot asking voters to decide on taxation rates for commercial marijuana.

    "Prop 19 is rather amorphous," St. Pierre said. "We expect that, within the next election cycle, the state legislature will pass laws affirming legalization and better defining regulation and taxation."

    St. Pierre noted that many California jurisdictions still prohibit the medical marijuana business and his group expects resistance even after Prop 19 is approved by voters.

    "It will be contentious. It will be problematic, like any adult commerce," he said. "We hope the legislature will act quickly to clarify matters where necessary."

    But how the state legislature will behave in light of the federal government's opposition is not known. Neither is it known how voters will react knowing Uncle Sam frowns on legalization.

    By Joseph Picard
    October 17, 2010


  1. talltom
    Legalized Marijuana in California: Polls Now Show a Close Call
    This October 15 2010 column by Lou Cannon reinforces many of the points made in Balzafire's post above, and shows that California really is STRUGGLING with legalization of pot. The polling sentiments shown here are more recent than the Field Poll of late September; that poll showed Proposition 19 going well ahead. And it looks like Cannon's piece was written before the attorney general Holder formally announced the justice department would not look the other way if Prop.19 passes, as they are with medical marijuana.

    Cannon is an old California hand who wrote for the Washington Post and has written several biographies of Ronald Reagan. I like his closing statement "whatever happens at the polls, advocates of legal marijuana can at least take comfort from the long-term trend in California. Indeed, with the new law making marijuana the equivalent of a traffic ticket, it might be said that they have mostly won their battle no matter what the voters decide on Proposition 19."

    Legalized Marijuana in California: Polls Now Show a Close Call


    October 15, 2010

    A landmark California initiative that would legalize marijuana and allow local governments to tax drug proceeds is coming under fire from many sides these days, including some advocates of medical marijuana use.

    Despite leading in three of four public opinion surveys, the fate of Proposition 19 on the November ballot remains up in the air. The initiative, billed by its advocates as a "common sense" approach to marijuana control, appeared to be sailing to victory in late September when the venerable Field Poll found it leading by 7 percentage points among likely voters. Since then, however, Proposition 19 has experienced a series of setbacks -- last week a survey by Reuters/Ipsos, with a much smaller sampling than the Field Poll, found the initiative trailing.

    Proposition 19 would permit any Californian who is 21 or over to grow marijuana for his personal use. It would also, more controversially, permit California's 478 cities and 58 counties to set their own rules on regulation, taxing, and retail sales of marijuana, creating what even some proponents of legalized pot say is likely to be a crazy quilt of new regulations. Nine California cities have advisory measures on the November ballot, seeking voter guidance on the taxation rates that should be imposed for marijuana sales.

    Proposition 19 may have lost ground on Sept. 30 when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a law that, beginning Jan. 1, will reduce possession of an ounce or less of marijuana to an infraction equivalent to a traffic ticket, punishable only by a fine. This development would in other years have been cheered by advocates of legal marijuana. Instead, these advocates point out -- accurately-- that the measure was approved by the Legislature in order to head off Proposition 19. Even so, Stephen Gutwillig, California director of the Drug Policy Alliance that is promoting Proposition 19, acknowledged that the new law is a significant reform.

    Opponents of the ballot initiative, including Schwarzenegger, hope it is significant enough to derail Proposition 19.

    This week Proposition 19 encountered two new setbacks. The first was a statement from George Mull, president of the California Cannabis Association, saying that the initiative is so poorly designed that it poses a threat to medical users of marijuana. California voters in 1996 legalized the sale and use of the drug for medical purposes with a doctor's prescription. Because Proposition 19 would allow localities to ban marijuana as well as tax it, medical marijuana dispensaries might be outlawed in some jurisdictions, Mull said.

    A day after this statement, the Rand Corp., a nonpartisan research institute based in Santa Monica, issued a study which said that Proposition 19 would do little to curtail the violent Mexican drug cartels that smuggle marijuana across the border.

    The view that Proposition 19 would curb drug smuggling has been a principal argument of proponents. Gutwillig maintains that the initiative would "deal a major blow to criminal syndicates on both sides of the border." But Beau Kimmel, co-director of Rand's Drug Policy Research Center, said that legal marijuana from California would heavily impact the Mexican cartels only if the drug is sold nationwide. "It's very hard to imagine that the feds would sit idly by and just let California marijuana dominate the country," Kimmel said.
    Indeed, it is widely believed by local law enforcement officers that the federal government will challenge the constitutionality of Proposition 19 if it passes as a violation of federal law. The Justice Department under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama has tacitly allowed dispensing of marijuana for medical use, although this, too, violates federal statutes.

    Proposition 19 is also coming under fire on health issues. Opponents of the measure generally concede that marijuana is less harmful than alcohol but say that there are nonetheless health risks associated with the drug. Studies have shown that about 9 percent of marijuana users become addicted compared to 15 percent of alcohol users; in a recent survey more than two thirds of the members of the California Society of Addiction Medicine said they expect marijuana addiction to increase if the drug is fully legalized.

    Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Itai Danovitch of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, said that marijuana "does not cause dramatic physical dependence but can lead to substantial problems in education, work, and relationships." He called for applying revenues from legalization of marijuana "toward any problems that arise from its increased use." Proposition 19 makes no such allocation. It also contains no standard for testing when marijuana use has been excessive, such as the blood-alcohol test used for drivers who are suspected of being under the influence.

    Whether any of these concerns will have an impact on the voters remains a matter of conjecture. Mark DiCamillo, director of the Field Poll, said in an interview that support for Proposition 19 reflects California's increasing tolerant culture and that its constituency is similar in composition to the opponents of Proposition 8, a 2008 initiative that banned gay marriage. (Proposition 8 won narrowly but was struck down by a federal court, and is now under appeal.)

    "It took a massive television advertising campaign to pass Proposition 8; I don't see any similar advertising against Proposition 19," DiCamillo said.
    Nor is there likely to be since opponents are under-funded and reliant on a public education campaign led by law enforcement and public figures such as Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who signed the ballot argument against Proposition 19. The initiative has been bankrolled by Richard Lee of Oakland, who operates a profitable medical marijuana dispensary and pot-growing nursery. Lee donated $1.5 million to qualify Proposition 19 for the ballot.

    The Field Poll was founded by Mervin Field, still active in the firm at 88, and has been polling on California issues since 1945. Its findings show that Californians have become increasingly permissive on a variety of social issues, including marijuana use. When Field first asked the question about legalization of marijuana in 1969, only 13 percent favored it while 49 percent of voters wanted the state to pass new tough laws against the drug.

    Intriguing and contradictory demographics come into play in analyzing the prospects of Proposition 19. California electorates in midterm balloting are invariably whiter and older than the electorates in presidential election years. That's a principal reason why Democrats have carried the state in the last five presidential elections while electing only one governor during this period. But the Field Poll shows that "older and whiter" cuts both ways on Prop. 19. Older voters are the ones most opposed to marijuana legalization. On the other hand, whites as a group favor legalization more than do Latinos, African Americans, or Asians.

    DiCamillo believes that Proposition 19 may slightly increase the turnout of voters under 30, the constituency most in favor of legalization. These voters were 9 percent of the electorate in the last gubernatorial race in 2006 and 13 percent of the electorate when Obama was elected in 2008. DiCamillo expects turnout of these youngest voters to be right in the middle this time, 11 percent of the electorate.

    Some Democrats have speculated that a larger turnout of the youngest cohort of voters will also boost the chances of Jerry Brown, the Democratic nominee for governor, in his tight race against Republican opponent Meg Whitman. DiCamillo sees no evidence of this. Bill Carrick, a respected Democratic consultant, thinks Proposition 19 is at most a tiny factor in the gubernatorial race, perhaps slightly increasing turnout on college campuses. Both Brown and Whitman oppose Proposition 19.

    Whatever happens at the polls, advocates of legal marijuana can at least take comfort from the long-term trend in California. Indeed, with the new law making marijuana the equivalent of a traffic ticket, it might be said that they have mostly won their battle no matter what the voters decide on Proposition 19.

  2. Balzafire
    I'm surprised that nobody in California is raising hell about Holder saying what he did simply because he is essentially saying that the federal government will override their state law.
    It should be a huge constitutional fight, but few people have raised that point.
  3. Terrapinzflyer
    ^^ Indeed - but Californians have been through this fight before with medical marijuana, and the supreme court has swung even further to the conservatives since then.

    They also know this will have to make it through the local courts first, and it is unclear how it will fare there. It is a horribly written bill that will leave itself open to numerous legal/state constitutional challenges.

    For starters it does not legalize marijuana statewide- but leaves it to local governments to "opt in", which is sure to result in numerous cases around the state.

    And while it is presented as a tax iniative to help the ailing state- it is unclear whether it will actually pass (state) constitutional muster regarding taxation, nor even if the state will even be able to tax marijuana or if only local governments that opt in will be able to.

    The state will see millions in court costs before it ever sees a dime in tax revenue.

    Worth noting too that while it has received little attention since the drug policy groups have chosen to support Prop. 19 (like they really have a choice), they originally tried to stop it.

    Source - many more examples can be found with a little research.
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