Yes We Cannabis? Californians to Vote on Sweeping Marijuana Legalization Initiative

Tomorrow, when they enter the polling booth, California voters will face a dizzying array of ballot initiatives, nine in all.   Among other things, voters must decide whether to suspend the state’s landmark global-warming law, whether to repeal three corporate tax breaks, whether to allow the Legislature to approve budgets with a simple majority instead of a two-thirds vote, and whether California will be the first state to legalize, regulate, and tax marijuana beyond medical use.

Proposition 19, the Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis Act of 2010, is one of the most closely watched ballot initiatives this election season.   If passed, it would allow people 21 and older to possess, grow and transport marijuana for their personal use. It would also permit cities and counties to decide whether to regulate and tax the commercial production and sale of the drug, possibly creating a system of "wet" and "dry" counties for marijuana, similar to those that exist with alcohol laws.

The measure would also increase the criminal penalty for giving marijuana to a minor, prohibit the consumption of the drug in public or while minors are present, and maintain existing laws against driving under the influence.

Supporters say legalization would bring the marijuana industry above ground and eliminate much of the violence and corruption that characterizes the marijuana market.    In an editorial in the Harvard Crimson, Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron likens marijuana legalization to the repeal of alcohol prohibition that restored the legal alcohol industry.  “A small component of the marijuana market might remain illicit—moonshine marijuana rather than moonshine whiskey—but if regulation and taxation are moderate, most producers and consumers will choose the legal sector, as they did with alcohol,” he wrote.

They also point to the significant amount of revenue that could be raised by legalizing and regulating the drug. Studies by state agencies found legalization would generate billions of dollars in revenue that could be used to fund schools and public safety.  The California Board of Equalization, which currently collects alcohol and tobacco taxes, estimates that imposing a $50 per ounce levy on marijuana sales could generate $1.4 billion in revenue each year. That doesn’t include the other budgetary implications of legalizing marijuana, including the expansion of agriculture if farmers were allowed to openly cultivate the plant. Marijuana is believed to be one of the biggest cash crops in the country.  In addition, supporters argue that passage would result in a major reduction in costs for enforcement of marijuana-related offenses, the handling of such cases in the court system, and corrections costs for offenders.

Law enforcement groups in California have joined with anti-drug community groups, many businesses, and Mothers Against Drunk Driving, among others, to form an anti-initiative coalition known as Public Safety First.   The group argues that the legalizing marijuana will lead to increased substance abuse in the state, and that the long-term costs associated with that would vastly exceed the amount of new revenue legalizing the drug might bring in.

Skip Miller, a California lawyer who chairs the board of the drug abuse education program D.A.R.E. America, blasted those who call for legalization as a way of boosting tax revenues.  “It is completely irresponsible to suggest that the legalization of a dangerous drug could be a way to help us out of the budget mess we’re in.  Such comments send entirely the wrong message, especially to young people who face a difficult enough time resisting the pressure of peers and others to try drugs,” he said in a statement.

If passed, it would set up a showdown with federal government enforcement agencies, who argue that the drug will remain illegal under the federal Controlled Substances Act.   U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said last month that federal drug enforcement officers would enforce federal law on any growers, sellers, and carriers of the drug.

"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," he wrote in a letter to ex-drug enforcement chiefs.  

This may be a largely empty threat, however.  According to the FBI, in 2008 there were 848,000 marijuana arrests in the country, and federal law enforcement officers accounted for less than 1 percent of them.   The DEA has roughly 5,500 special agents nationwide, compared to 70,000 local police officers in California.   It seems unlikely that the DEA and other federal law enforcement would have the resources to go after California marijuana users. 

Regardless of the emptiness of the threat, it appears to have worked.  Support for the measure has decreased significantly in the closing weeks of the campaign.   The latest poll finds that 49 percent of respondents say they oppose the measure, with 42 percent in favor, a reversal of poll results in September.   However, campaign leaders for the proposition suggest that polling voters about marijuana is difficult, because people may be reluctant to tell a questioner they support legalization.   They point to the fact that support for the measure is running markedly higher on automated polls than on live caller polls.

Regardless of passage of the measure, the drug will be significantly decriminalized in California.  Last month, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed legislation that reduces simple possession of the drug from a misdemeanor to an infraction with a $100 fine – similar to a traffic citation. 

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