Months ago, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said it's “time for a debate” on the legalization of marijuana in California. Now, some want to skip the debate and get to the legalization.
Wednesday, the first of three initiatives seeking to effectively legalize marijuana possession, cultivation and sales entered circulation. While there seems to be a rising tide of support for such a state policy change, it remains wholly unclear if any of the three initiatives would garner support from a majority of the state's voters. And, if one does, the potential impacts on Humboldt County are murky.
”Complete legalization would not be good for the Humboldt County economy,” said local attorney and longtime medical marijuana advocate Greg Allen. “But, there's no question that for the state's economy, legalization would be a good thing.”
After years in the background as the state was awash in controversy over medical marijuana laws, the debate over out-and-out legalization in California was thrust forward amid the state's epic budget crisis earlier this year. With the state then facing a projected $42 billion deficit, state Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, introduced a bill in February seeking to legalize, regulate and tax marijuana. It was the prospect of new tax revenue -- to the tune of an estimated $1.3 billion, according to the state Board of Equalization -- that seemed to give the idea a foothold.
Ammiano and his staff trumpeted both the new revenue stream and a bundle of enforcement savings as reasons for the cash-strapped state to give the bill serious consideration. The governor said it was time for a debate, and a sprinkle of lawmakers throughout the state agreed, including North Coast Sen. Patricia Wiggins.
”We've heard estimates about how much money this could raise, and while it's hard to know how close to the mark those estimates are, my staff have heard from police and sheriff officials from throughout my district who say decriminalization would also allow them to devote more of their time and resources to more pressing law enforcement matters,” Wiggins said at the time.
For the first time, it also seemed public sentiment was on the side of legalization, although many say they fear legalization would lead to more minors accessing the drug and more abuse in general.
In April, a California Field Poll estimated that 56 percent of registered voters supported the idea of legalizing marijuana for recreational use and taxing its proceeds.
In the Capitol, however, the topic soon lost steam. Under the weight of another budget crisis, Ammiano had essentially shelved the bill, saying it needed more study and retooling.
Now, as they've been known to do, Californians are taking matters into their own hands and turning to the initiative system. But, not everyone in the marijuana advocacy community is entirely optimistic.
Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), said pro-marijuana initiatives generally lose support from the point when they are initially announced, as opposition groups begin advertising and speaking out against them.
”They all lose support,” he said, adding that NORML expects them to lose between 5 and 8 percent of supporters at the polls.
NORML is so convinced in the drop-off effect, St. Pierre said, that it will only launch an initiative effort if its polling shows 58.5 percent of likely voters in favor of a proposition.
”Can 56 percent hold? Here at NORML we wouldn't launch. That just wouldn't be high enough for us,” St. Pierre said.
The proverbial cat, however, is out of the bag, and St. Pierre said NORML will consider endorsing one of the soon-to-be-competing initiatives, likely basing its decision on which is most likely to pass.
The initiative that entered circulation Wednesday -- the other two are currently under review at the Attorney General's Office -- would repeal all state laws that currently make it a crime for people over the age of 21 to use, possess, sell, cultivate and transport marijuana, except those that make it a crime to drive under the influence.
If it gets the 430,000 signatures to make it to the ballot, and then gets more than 50 percent of the vote, the law would also expunge convictions based on the repealed laws. That might represent a challenge in getting it passed, St. Pierre said.
When people start talking about expunging records, overturning convictions and even offering reparations to those who have served prison time on marijuana offenses, St. Pierre said they tend to lose middle-of-the-road, pragmatic voters.
”Things like reparations or expungement typically retard or kill the initiatives,” he said. “They make the process much more difficult.”
But expungement might have its positives, Allen said, and would certainly translate to a savings of state revenue if everyone with marijuana convictions were released from prison and taken off parole.
”Getting these people out of the system, and I mean completely out, would save us a lot of money,” Allen said.
According to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, 809 people were in California prisons for marijuana-related offenses as of the end of 2007 -- the last day for which statistics were available. At an annual cost of $49,000 per inmate to the state, that equates to an estimated $39 million that taxpayers spent in 2007 to keep marijuana offenders behind bars. And that doesn't include funds spent to keep offenders in county jails, where the vast majority of those convicted of marijuana offenses end up serving their sentences.
Whether legalization would be a benefit or a hindrance to Humboldt County remains up for debate, Allen said.
There's the possibility, he said, that the county could carve out a high-end, boutique-type niche for itself, eventually becoming what Napa Valley is to wine and drawing tourists from across the state, and the country, to come sample the Humboldt brand of marijuana.
However, Allen said there's also the distinct possibility that massive farming operations in the Central Valley would flood the market, driving the price of marijuana down so far Humboldt County's smaller scale growers would be unable to compete.
Allen said the federal government's reaction to legalization in California could also prove to be the “joker in the deck” in how legalization affects the marijuana market.
In any event, it's very hard to tell what the impacts to Humboldt County would be, Allen said, both because it's difficult to determine how legalization would change the marijuana market and because it's just about impossible to tell how big a part marijuana currently plays in the local economy.
”It's interesting, and it's hard to actually really project where it's going to go,” Allen said. “I think, in the long run, complete legalization would be really problematic for Humboldt County. We don't know how much of Humboldt's economy comes from marijuana sales, but we know it's a lot.”
September 10, 2009