Would teen use of marijuana drop and roads become safer with California marijuana legalization, as Rep. Ted Lieu has claimed? Or would pot shops begin luring kids with clever TV commercials that push drug-infused candy, as Sen. Dianne Feinstein has argued?
In August, those wildly divergent claims landed before Sacramento Superior Court Judge Shelleyanne W.L. Chang, who had to referee a battle over dueling assertions that proponents and opponents wanted to include in the state’s official voter guide.
Proposition 64 and California’s legalization movement
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Both sides were exaggerating and needed to tone down their depictions of a California future with legal, recreational cannabis.
November’s election is polarized like few in modern memory, from the presidential choices on down. But the intensity of the fight over Proposition 64, which would legalize the recreational use of cannabis, has stood out. Out of 17 controversial initiatives on the state ballot – including efforts to increase gun control and ban the death penalty – the question about pot is the only one so far that’s led to lawsuits.
Ever since cannabis got sucked into the 1960s culture wars, the debate over legalizing marijuana has been about more than whether adults should get to choose between lighting a joint or sipping a beer to unwind. It has been cast as a series of choices between the defense of personal freedom or public health, social justice or public safety, reality or morality.
Many of those supercharged arguments linger, stifling responsible policy decisions even as prohibition crumbles across the nation, argues Mark A.R. Kleiman, a New York University professor and leading expert on legalization.
Legislators remain afraid to tackle the topic. So it’s been left up to activists on both sides, with many pro-weed advocates clinging to claims that marijuana is harmless while opponents issue warnings that smell a bit like “Reefer Madness.”
Similar arguments arose 20 years ago, when California voters passed the nation’s first and most relaxed medical marijuana measure.
Today, no one’s going to jail for small amounts of the drug.
Marijuana is easy enough to get, with ads for stores on bus stops and billboards. There are cannabis-theme yoga classes, city tours and museum exhibits. There are high-end restaurants mixing marijuana molecules into craft cocktails.
That’s why, unlike the impact legalization might have in Texas or Indiana, many scholars contend California won’t change dramatically if voters take the next step and regulate marijuana more like alcohol.
Since possession of an ounce of cannabis has meant only a ticket for six years, passing the measure wouldn’t, as some supporters suggest, free up much space in crowded jails. It also wouldn’t do much to stabilize the state budget, since the estimated $1 billion in tax revenue generated by the new market will be targeted narrowly for youth prevention programs and public safety. And legalization would only undercut, not eliminate, the black market, which experts say will persist so long as marijuana remains illegal in other states and for those under 21.
Despite fears expressed by some opponents, people still won’t be permitted to walk down the street smoking pot, since the initiative prohibits public consumption. Employers could still hire and fire workers based on drug tests. Dispensaries won’t pop up everywhere because cities could still regulate or ban marijuana businesses. And medical marijuana patients would face a bump in taxes, but otherwise retain their 20-year-old right to cannabis access.
Significant changes are in store for California’s unregulated medical marijuana market, though they’re coming regardless of the vote on Prop. 64. That’s because Sacramento lawmakers approved a regulatory overhaul last year that soon will require marijuana legally produced in California to be tracked, tested for safety and sold to patients through state-licensed shops.
It’s too soon for definitive answers on how legalization impacts crime, drugged driving and teen use. Conflicting studies out of Colorado since the state voted to allow recreational marijuana in 2012 show both slight increases and slight decreases in all three concerns. There are scattered reports of more marijuana-related hospital visits and school issues.
Still, a majority of Coloradans tell pollsters that legalization has been good for the state, creating jobs, boosting tourism and generating new revenue.
Given that California already accounts for half the nation’s legal cannabis market, experts say there’s no reason to expect more dramatic results if recreational use is legalized here.
MATTER OF PRINCIPLE
So the question remains: Why does Prop. 64 even matter?
Many supporters – including the measure’s top funder, former Facebook president Sean Parker – argue it’s about social justice.
Though no one is jailed in California for minor pot possession anymore, a report from the pro-Prop. 64 Drug Policy Alliance found there were 8,866 felony arrests for growing and selling marijuana in 2015, with enforcement disproportionately affecting minorities and young people. Prop. 64 reduces penalties for most marijuana-related crimes, giving adults convicted of possession with intent to sell six months in jail rather than two years in prison and teens caught with the drug counseling and community service instead of criminal records.
Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom says he doesn’t like marijuana. But he’s a leading proponent of Prop. 64, arguing it would begin to fix a broken system that’s consumed law enforcement resources and made marijuana easier for kids to get than alcohol.
On the other side, Feinstein and other vocal opponents of the measure say legalizing recreational marijuana sends the wrong message. And they warn that children, whose brains may be harmed by early exposure to the drug, could find cannabis-laced candy or be enticed by dispensary ads on TV.
The anti-Prop. 64 camp also points to a conflict with federal regulators, who still rank marijuana as a top-tier narcotic on par with heroin and won’t give the industry access to banking services.
“I believe in the rule of the law,” Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens said. “And the rule of law is that, federally, it’s against the law.”
Stanford professor Keith Humphreys, who served on a Newsom-led commission that studied marijuana policy, predicts the industry will flourish in California if the business-friendly measure passes.
That means adults can expect easier access to cheaper marijuana. While that may sound good to consumers, Humphreys said it also raises concerns about abuse and a corporate takeover of the market.
There’s one thing advocates, opponents and scholars appear to agree on: The outcome of the Prop. 64 vote will sway the broader conversation on legal marijuana.
“It may matter more for people outside California than in,” Humphreys says. “We’re a trendsetter.”
California led the way in banning cigarette smoking in restaurants, with two-thirds of states following suit. It pioneered strict emission regulations on new cars – policies now standard for the auto industry. And it was the first to sanction medical marijuana. Today, 25 states let patients use the plant.
It’s perhaps surprising that California has approached recreational marijuana legalization more cautiously. But polls show the Golden State is now on track to join four others that have already permitted adult cannabis use.
And as California is the sixth-largest economy in the world, experts say the Nov. 8 vote has the potential to either delay the legalization movement or propel it past the point of no return.