By passing Proposition 64, Californians will approve a 15 percent sales tax on all marijuana products, plus a flat tax applied to commercial cultivation. Pictured: Customers buy products at the Harvest Medical Marijuana Dispensary in San Francisco. (Haven Daley, Associated Press)

Prop. 64 will bring pot sales out of the shadows

Orange County Register op-ed: Passing Proposition 64 would align California law with public opinion and with the growing scope of the marijuana industry and its tax base

In a political climate where intense polarization between the major political parties and their presidential nominees is the norm, there is an issue where both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump seem to almost agree. Which issue is it? The answer may surprise you — it’s marijuana. Clinton has called states passing legalization laws “laboratories of democracy,” while Trump has suggested that federal regulators “leave it up to the states.”

The reasoning and relevance of these positions is clear. In a major trend, four states (along with the District of Columbia) have already legalized recreational use, and as many as five more could join their ranks come November. California is fortunately among them. Proposition 64, up for a vote this year, puts legalization on the ballot, giving the Golden State an opportunity to reform current law in a measured, methodical way that better serves the public and private interest.

By now, Californians can consult a large body of evidence on the economics of marijuana — today and tomorrow, in-state and beyond. The numbers are striking. One in eight adults in America, 13 percent, now say they currently partake — “nearly double the percentage who reported smoking marijuana only three years ago,” according to Gallup. And in California, the market is already booming, accounting for $2.7 billion of total sales of $5.7 billion nationwide, according to Politico. Within just a year of legalization, industry research indicates, sales will increase by over $1.5 billion. According to some estimates, California’s market alone could eventually reach $15 billion or more.

That means the potential tax receipts from legalization are substantial too. By passing Proposition 64, Californians will approve a 15 percent sales tax on all marijuana products, plus a flat tax applied to commercial cultivation. Meanwhile, according to state officials, the current system that will punish some 20,000 residents for marijuana offenses this year is likely to cost the state about $100 million. That’s wasted tax money.

In the face of opportunity, many legislators recognize where the center of gravity in state politics is shifting on the issue, and they’re acting accordingly. In addition to a broad coalition of private groups, Prop. 64 enjoys bipartisan support, including Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom. In Sacramento, two lawmakers have already prepared marijuana tax bills that will likely go up for a vote after the election.

Unfortunately, among the measure’s political opponents, some elected officials have warned of an adverse effect on children that Prop. 64 was explicitly drafted to prevent. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, for instance, claimed that legalization would lead to ads targeting children with appealing treats. But ads and products aimed at those under 21 years of age are expressly prohibited by Prop. 64. The state’s political old guard may not be ready to catch up with the desires and interests of those they serve. But no constituent is served by unfounded charges that confuse the statewide electorate instead of helping people make well-informed decisions.

These misleading arguments and ads are meant to instill fear in parents likely already grappling with whether or not they should vote for legalizing recreational marijuana because they worry about their children gaining access to weed. But legalizing and, particularly, regulating marijuana could make pot less accessible to minors.

In fact, minors are likely more able to gain access to marijuana now than if it were legalized and regulated. Ask a high school student or young adult under 21 if it’s easier to get marijuana or alcohol today. I’d bet you find that it’s marijuana. That’s because retailers realize that the risk of losing a liquor license or facing steep fines far outweighs the benefits of a one-time sale of alcohol illegally to an under-age consumer. Within the status quo, it does not matter if a dealer sells marijuana to an adult or child; they are both illegal activities and the consequences for selling to adults or children are essentially the same. Legalization fixes this and gives clear direction to law enforcement.

Marijuana sales — medical or otherwise — have been in the shadows for far too long. And because the industry has operated outside the bounds of a legal framework, a slew of unnecessary problems have occurred. Consider this: because marijuana sales are illegal it is largely a cash business. And any law enforcement official will acknowledge cash businesses, by their very nature, are prone to more crime including theft and even murder. Legalizing marijuana in California will not fully solve this problem — that will take federal action so that marijuana businesses are able to use banks instead of safes — but it’s a start and certainly sends a message to Congress.

California officials — and fellow citizens — face some simple and significant facts around recreational marijuana today. As part of a state-by-state process, passing Prop. 64 would align California law with public opinion and with the growing scope of the marijuana industry and its tax base. To some residents, legalization will feel like a big step, and in a way, it is. But more importantly, it’s a thoughtful, reasonable one, well in sync with the times.

Brian Calle is opinion editor for the Southern California News Group.

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