SANTA ANA, Calif. — A growing number of Southern California law enforcement organizations and leaders are voicing objections to a state ballot measure that would legalize recreational marijuana, saying it would make the state less safe.
“I’m vehemently opposed to it,” Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens said. “I think that it would be a terrible move for California to make.”
San Bernardino County District Attorney Mike Ramos said the initiative to legalize marijuana “will do nothing to curb black-market activity in California.” He is one of several police officials who is actively opposing the measure, a group that includes the Riverside Sheriffs’ Association, the Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs and the California Police Chiefs Association.
Law enforcement remains one of the most influential voices when it comes to debating issues such as marijuana legalization, according to Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC. And its credibility doesn’t seem to have declined, he said, despite recent controversies surrounding the relationship of police and community.
But marijuana legalization advocates so far have collected 40 times more campaign cash than opponents. And with fewer Republican leaders in California who can help raise money for causes backed by men and women in blue, Schnur wonders if law enforcement’s anti-pot megaphone will be big enough to be heard by voters.
“Unless the opposition is able to identify a very generous funding source, it’s difficult to see how they get their message out in a way that allows them to move public opinion,” he said.
Proposition 64 would allow Californians 21 and older to possess up to an ounce of marijuana and grow as many as six plants. The measure would prohibit driving while impaired, giving cannabis to minors or consuming it in public. It also includes provisions for licensing, testing, labeling, advertising and local control over marijuana businesses.
But some public safety officials contend the measure doesn’t go far enough to drive out illicit sales, keep roads safe and protect young people.
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“We are concerned that this proposition is bad public policy and does nothing to prevent advertising and marketing to children and teenagers near parks, community centers and child-centric businesses,” said Tom Dominguez, president of the Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs, which recently donated $5,000 to the opposition campaign. “It is a danger to our youth and the communities we have been sworn to serve.”
Last week, the association joined 97 organizations, politicians and community leaders who are opposing Prop. 64. They include Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas, Costa Mesa Police Chief Robert Sharpnack and El Monte Police Chief David Reynoso.
“You hear people say it’s not as bad as alcohol. But if you smoke marijuana and drive, it does impair you,” said George Hofstetter, president of the Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs, which has donated $10,000 to oppose legalization. “I hope we can get the word out there, but there’s a lot of support for it right now.”
The anti-Prop. 64 Coalition for Responsible Drug Policies has raised $159,150. Proponents of legalization have raised $6.5 million, with more than three months to go before the Nov. 8 election.
Who’s funding Proposition 64?
Proposition 64 has raised more than $6.5 million from five sources:
• $2.27 million from Sean Parker, who co-founded Napster and was Facebook’s first president
• $1.75 million from Drug Policy Action, the advocacy arm of Drug Policy Alliance, which aims to end the war on drugs
• $1.5 million from the New Approach PAC, a legacy of Progressive insurance mogul Peter Lewis that supported Oregon’s 2014 marijuana legalization
• $750,000 from Irvine-based Weedmaps, a Yelp-style service for cannabis retailers founded by Justin Hartfield
• $250,000 from Nicholas Pritzker, Hyatt Hotel heir and billionaire investor
Who’s funding the opposition?
The Coalition for Responsible Drug Policies, sponsored by the Public Safety Institute, has raised $159,150. Here are five of the top donors:
• $64,150 from Sam Action Inc., a nonprofit alliance of health professionals opposing marijuana legalization
• $25,000 from California Teamsters, a union representing workers largely in the trucking and warehouse industries
• $10,000 from the California State Sheriffs’ Association
• $10,000 from Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs State PAC
• $10,000 from Los Angeles County Professional Peace Officers Association
Source: Secretary of State
The legalization effort lists 112 endorsers, including some law enforcement organizations, such as the National Latino Officers Association, Blacks in Law Enforcement of America and Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. Likewise, it includes a number of public safety leaders, though most who are speaking out in favor of marijuana are retired.
“It’s time for law enforcement to admit that the drug war has been a failure,” said Nick Morrow, a former Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department deputy who’s advocating for Prop. 64. “Marijuana is not going to go away if you do nothing. I don’t see the rationale in not regulating it.”
Legalizing marijuana will generate significant tax revenue, but public safety officials are divided over whether California will come out ahead in the end.
Prop. 64 establishes a 15 percent sales tax, plus a tax by weight for growers. The Legislative Analyst’s Office estimates that would generate up to $1 billion each year, which would be directed to cover the cost of the program, invest in research, offset environmental impacts and boost law enforcement.
“Marijuana today is the largest cash crop in the state of California, and it is untaxed, unregulated,” said Jim Gray, a retired Orange County Superior Court judge who is campaigning for Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson. “It’s time that this change.”
Hutchens, the Orange County sheriff, doubts new tax revenue will offset the cost of potentially having more drivers under the influence of marijuana and more people in addiction treatment. But she also added that financial benefits aren’t the proper basis for assessing the merits of the measure.
“Even if they were making money hand over fist, to me it’s not a good enough reason to legalize marijuana,” she said. “Is the next thing that we decide to legalize going to be methamphetamine or cocaine so that we can tax and regulate it?”
The Legislative Analyst’s Office also reports that California law enforcement and justice systems might save $100 million each year if Prop. 64 passes because minor possession would be legal and penalties reduced on a number of marijuana-related crimes.
Hutchens also questions claims that legalization will free up jail cells, pointing out that marijuana possession of an ounce or less was decriminalized six years ago.
“I don’t have people in jail for possession of marijuana unless it’s a lot of marijuana packaged for sales,” she said.
Another point of contention is how legalization will impact California’s multibillion-dollar black market.
If marijuana is regulated under Prop. 64, Gray said revenue would be shifted from violent drug cartels and street gangs to licensed California business owners.
“If you don’t support intelligent regulation, you’re supporting the cartels,” Morrow said.
But a number of law enforcement leaders reject that notion.
Ramos, the San Bernardino D.A., and others point to a paragraph in the 62-page measure that ensures entrepreneurs in the recreational market wouldn’t be turned down for a business license due to prior felony convictions for controlled substances.
Advocates say that provision means longtime medical marijuana business owners can’t be shut out of an expanded market based on crimes that no longer would be felonies under the new legal standards.
But John Lovell, a longtime lobbyist for law enforcement groups including the Riverside Sheriffs’ Association, said: “What is incredible about this provision is that it says, ‘We don’t care if you’re a cocaine dealer or a heroin dealer. You can’t be denied a license because of that.’”
Hutchens said she has been following news out of Colorado since the state became the first to allow recreational marijuana sales two years ago. She noted the state still has a significant black market and said there’s no reason to expect California’s entrenched underground market also wouldn’t persist.
Both sides argue that their biggest concern is keeping young people away from marijuana.
“I don’t think we need one more thing to dumb down our young people and impact their motivation to do well in life,” Hutchens said.
Prop. 64 supporters including Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom have argued that regulating marijuana will make it less available to young people by moving sales into a strict legal structure with stiff penalties for selling to minors.
Morrow said he has done a “litmus test” of sorts with his two teenage sons. He asked them, “If I gave you $20 to get me a six-pack of beer or a baggie of weed, which one would you come back with first?” Both teens told him it would be much easier for them to get marijuana, since they could go to a kid at school rather than face a liquor store owner who requires a valid ID.
A solid majority of Californians seem to agree with Prop. 64 advocates. A May survey by the Public Policy Institute of California found 60 percent of likely voters support legalization.
“Convincing donors to fund a campaign against an initiative with 60 percent support is a tough sell,” Schnur said. “Barring a very unforeseen surprise, it’s difficult to see how the opposition will be able to raise enough to be competitive.”