California has four possible paths for ending marijuana criminalization this year. But can activists agree on a way to end the ineffective policy?
Half of all graduating high school seniors have tried an illegal drug, according to a survey funded in large part by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the National Institutes of Health. This means that one in two Millennial generation high school graduates (ages 18 to 29) could technically be classified as criminals, many smoking pot—committing their first crime—before finishing high school.
Marijuana may have become a cultural rite of passage, but it is non-white citizens who disproportionately pay the price for marijuana’s continued classification as an illegal drug. Those who end up going to jail are predominately young black men, even though, according to the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, African Americans aged 18 to 25 use marijuana at rates lower than whites. According to the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice (CJCJ), the overall arrest rate in California sank by 40 percent since 1996, but marijuana arrests have increased by 127 percent. The number of marijuana arrests of non-white citizens also rose from 3,100 in 1990 to 16,300 in 2008. People of all ages and ethnicities smoke weed, but it is young people of color that are disproportionately paying the price. The astounding rate at which the United States has incarcerated people since the 1970s for marijuana charges is sobering.
These facts reflect a reality that our country is confronting: the failure of the drug war. Gil Kerlikowske, head of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, even called for an end to the “war on drugs” in May.
Recently, however, California has been discussing four (count ‘em, four!) options for legalizing marijuana. Though drug policy reform organizations generally agree that passage of any one of these initiatives would be a positive and necessary step, the ways in which these bills differ bring the nuts and bolts of legalization into the limelight. Some activists are confused and divided about which initiative to support, or how adequate the proposed systems of regulation are in the proposed initiatives.
There is also a question of timing. Polling in the state has shown that 56 percent of Californians favor legalization. But some in the legalization movement believe that, to ensure a greater chance of success, the number in support of legalization should be higher before pushing legalization initiatives. Drug Policy Alliance California director Stephen Gutwillig explains the concern in this way: “The idea is that a defeat could set the movement back quite a bit. We don’t yet know if that’s true.”
Aaron Smith, California policy director of the Marijuana Policy Project, says, “It’s an issue of limited resources. Running a campaign like this could cost a lot of money.” If California’s opinion on legalizing marijuana is growing exponentially more positive every year (much as California’s opinion of same-sex marriage is), then waiting just a year or two could ensure the passage of a marijuana legalization initiative, and some activists believe it might be a smarter use of resources to wait. The target for the movement could be 2012, when more progressive and youth voters are expected to come out to the polls on a presidential election year. Apart from the timing issue, serious questions over differences among the four initiatives remain.
Both Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) and Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) have been working closely with California Assemblymember Tom Ammiano on his bill, introduced to the state legislature in February. Ammiano has been active in California politics since the mid-‘70s when, as one of the first openly gay school teachers in the country, he worked with San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk on fighting an initiative that would have allowed districts to fire teachers because they were gay.
Ammiano’s bill calls for an end to penalties for possession, cultivation, or selling of cannabis for anyone 21 years of age or older. The bill also grants the right for all adults to grow up to 10 mature plants on their own property. Ammiano’s bill and its amendments will be discussed at a public health hearing in the California legislature on Oct. 28.
Additionally, a voter initiative was announced by Oakland resident and business owner Richard Lee in the months following the introduction of Ammiano’s bill. The initiative is known internally as the “Oaksterdam Initiative.” Lee is also the founder of Oaksterdam University, the first cannabis college in the United States. The school offers classes and workshops to prepare individuals for the booming “marijuana industry” in California.
Richard Lee’s ballot initiative, called the Regulate, Control, and Tax Cannabis Act of 2010, would decriminalize possession of less than an ounce of marijuana as well as personal cultivation of up to 25 square feet of marijuana plants. Lee’s initiative would also leave the current penalties for all other marijuana-related crimes in place, and would leave the details of regulation and taxation up to individual counties and cities in California. This could essentially lead to the equivalent of “wet” counties and “dry” counties in California, potentially making things complicated for California courts. But Lee feels that because the vast majority of marijuana arrests are for simple possession, it might save the state millions in court and prison costs, and boost state revenues through taxes.
Another voter ballot initiative, put forth by Omar Figueroa, a lawyer who specializes in marijuana cases, is very different than Lee’s or Ammiano’s proposals. Figueroa’s initiative would remove all state penalties related to marijuana, effective retroactively. This could release those currently serving a sentence in California for a marijuana-related crime. Figueroa was working with Lee on the Regulate, Control, and Tax Cannabis Act until he split off over disagreements of whether to take on state law and created his own initiative.
The fourth initiative has been introduced by activist and veteran John Donohue, who is from Long Beach, California. Donohue’s initiative is called the Common Sense Act of 2010 and would also repeal state laws that make it illegal to distribute, possess, cultivate, or transport marijuana; it also mandates local governments set up regulation and tax structures but allows them to determine how much, if at all, they want to tax marijuana use. The initiative would also bar state and local governments from using funds to enforce laws prohibiting marijuana-related offenses.
Both Gutwillig and Smith say that any change that moves California further away from marijuana prohibition is a good step. However, both the MPP and the DPA seem to be waiting to see what ends up on the ballot in January before they decide to help campaign for one initiative over another. Lee’s initiative is thought by Gutwillig and Smith to be the one that has the most resources, funds, and support to make it onto the ballot. And while some activists believe the timing isn’t quite right to push for legalization yet, others argue that while they delay, thousands more will be arrested for something California voters no longer think is wrong.
Lee’s initiative, though it seems likely to make it the furthest, does leave some things to be desired. If the goal is reducing the number of arrests, Lee’s initiative will certainly help. But others worry that leaving the penalties in place for other marijuana crimes beyond possession of an ounce or less will leave many “criminals” in the supply chain. Activists fear illegal activities under Lee’s initiative will fall on the underprivileged that resort to illegal activities in the face of inequality. “I’d personally rather see that legalization happen at the state level so that we have the same policy in Fresno that we do in San Francisco,” Smith says.
And many questions about how to effectively deal with decriminalization will be left up to California if any of the four initiatives actually make it into law. “The problem is that no one knows yet what a good regulatory policy [on marijuana] looks like,” Gutwillig says. “We just want to see legalization happen as quickly and effectively as possible.”
By Rachel Antony-Levine
October 5, 2009