The Adult Use of Marijuana Act, or Proposition 64, will give Californians a second chance at ending statewide prohibition, and the stakes couldn’t be higher. In a press release citing 60-percent national support for legalization, Gallup wrote, “If recreational marijuana use becomes legal in California this year, many other states will likely follow, because the ‘Golden State’ often sets political trends for the rest of the U.S.”
Nine states will vote on recreational or medical cannabis legalization this Tuesday, but most of the attention will be focused on trendsetting California, whose economy is larger than all but five countries. In 1996, California became the first state to legalize medical cannabis, but a 2010 midterm vote on recreational came up surprisingly short. People who thought legalization was a foregone conclusion in 2010 are not taking any chances this time around, especially since Prop. 64 has some unexpected detractors in the grow community. To discuss the issue and the various concerns, PRØHBTD spoke with Cat Packer, Campaign Coordinator for Californians for Responsible Marijuana Reform.
A concern among cannabis growers is that the law will allow for large-scale farms after five years. When this occurs, smaller farms fear they might be edged out. Is this a legitimate concern?
The people [who wrote the initiative] were trying to be forward thinking by creating a five-year period that prevented the distribution of licenses types with cultivation sites in excess of 22,000 square feet. The legislature could continue the ban with a simple majority vote, so those protections can continue. At this point, because [licensing] starts in 2018, cultivators really have a six-year window of opportunity, at the very least, that might not have been granted under other legalization initiatives. I think that's an added protection, not a con, of the initiative.
Some growers also say the new regulations might be too expensive.
Part of Proposition 64 involves protections, and the intent is to have fees and fines that are reasonable and scaled to size. You wouldn't have someone with a 5,000-square-foot grow site paying the same thing as someone who has a 20,000-square-foot grow site. Of course, there are costs associated with coming above board. Marijuana is currently regulated under the Medical Marijuana Regulation Safety Act, which was put into law in December of last year. Before that, things were unregulated. For example, there weren't any specific labor protections so essentially workers could have been working 20 hours a day. The initiative provides regulations and industry standards, like protections for these workers.
These different regulations—the requirement that all products be tested, the packaging standard—all come with cost because there is a cost to compliance. These are normal and natural processes that any participant in any other regulated industry has to deal with. It's just that, in between prohibition and medical marijuana and legalization, there has been this gray period where businesses were kind of able to do what they want. That's good for businesses, but we need to talk about what's good for consumers and what's good for all of California, not just for growers.
Only 31 percent of participants in a California Growers Association poll supported Prop. 64, with a large percentage undecided. What seem to be their reservations?
I've had conversations with people who think the [medical] system isn't broken. They think this quasi-system of half-legal, half-illegal, but maybe no enforcement, is working for everyone. That's simply not the case. California has had medical marijuana since '96, and over the past decade, we have arrested close to half a million people for marijuana offenses. Those arrests are generally for our black and brown communities. Black and brown folks in California are four times more likely to be arrested for a marijuana offense and five times more likely to be arrested for a felony.
Not having these regulations in place helps keep the cost down for cultivators. They are able to make more money. Once again, when you allow other people to enter the market with legalization, the thought process is that more people will be able to get a license. More people means more businesses, more jobs. We're talking about the windfall of money that's going to come to the state of California. As that industry grows, those growers have less and less of a share of that market economy. I think their business models will have to change because regulations will bring things above board. When folks initially talked about legalization, that's what people always wanted. We wanted to bring marijuana out of the illicit system and allow for a space where it could be treated like everything else.
Some people like to hide behind the guise of medical marijuana, but folks in California know the medical-patient system is inflated with non-patients. There is going to be a natural shift once legalization happens in which folks who had originally inflated the medical system will no longer need to participate in it. Adults 21 and up will just go into a marijuana retail establishment and buy their products, and those products might not be from the same original cultivators growing right now.
I think those are their concerns.
Among the official arguments against Prop. 64, the opponents wrote, “The proposition would increase black market and drug cartel activity." I’m not sure any data supports that argument in the slightest, but what is your response?
That's misguided just in general. Consumers for the first time will be able to make informed decisions about products of their choosing. For example, if you are a soda drinker, you know exactly what Coke tastes like every time. There is consistency, there is a brand association, there is a barcode, and those types of consumer protections come along with legalization and help bring folks out of participation in the illicit market. That happens naturally with legalization, but it doesn't happen immediately.
Folks in general would be misguided to think, after having medical marijuana in California for 20 years, that the illicit market would automatically disappear. I don't think anyone is arguing that's going to be the case. At least for a few years, we're going to have to work to bring those consumers over. We're going to have to allow for opportunities for businesses to get above board, for people who might be selling in the illicit market to participate in the legal market. That transition is going to take time, but that transition is natural and inevitable. That transition alone stops a significant amount of money from going to drug cartels, which currently have a percentage share of the market we're trying to curb.
There are also issues related to banking. [Right now] it's an all-cash business, and doesn't that increase the incentive for folks to burglarize and rob? I don't know why folks would make the argument that [legalization] will actually increase the activity of cartels. It is definitely short sighted because this is ultimately about bringing things completely above board. And look, we're new at this. These are the first years of ending prohibition so things aren't perfect, but we're trying to march towards that place. Other jurisdictions that legalized [cannabis] still have issues they’re working through. It is a long-term project.
What can California learn from Colorado and Washington that they can apply to legalization if Prop. 64 is approved?
There are definitely lots of lessons to learn from other jurisdictions that legalized. The first thing is that marijuana arrests go down. Across the board, we see fewer people being arrested in these states. That's important for a number of different reasons. First, we feel people who use marijuana shouldn't be criminalized. We know there are a number of negative consequences that come along with a marijuana arrest, including the potential to be discriminated against in housing, employment and education. Folks need to be able to erase that stigma. Reducing arrests also saves law enforcement a ton of money, and police officers can now refocus and re-prioritize their work on violent crime as opposed to non-violent drug offenses.
We can also learn from other jurisdictions in the stories told in the media, like protections put in place to keep edibles away from children. Some of these other states didn't have protections to try and stop children from getting their hands on these things. In our initiative, we provide some of the toughest and strictest regulations on how those particular items are marketed to make sure they are not appealing to children.
While arrests went down in these other jurisdictions, we learned that arrests went up for public consumption. Some states may have legal marijuana, but folks don't have a place where they can consume it. Colorado and Alaska are all having these issues where tourists come and stay in hotels that won't allow them to consume marijuana. If you can't consume publicly, where can you consume? Privately, so essentially only homeowners can essentially do that. Other jurisdictions are struggling with trying to allow for onsite consumption, but Proposition 64 allows for jurisdictions to opt in to onsite consumption.
These are just a few ways the initiative tries to be forward-thinking and learn from these other jurisdictions. Once again, we're still very early on in the process of understanding the exact impact. I think the broadest intention of legalization is that we don't want people being arrested. That goal is being accomplished in some fashion because we know arrest numbers are going down.
Let's say 64 passes. Are people still going to get arrested?
Yes, people are still going to get arrested. Every state that legalized has a limit on the amount you're allowed to have on your person. In general, whatever is in excess of that amount could still involve some sort of penalty. What we tried to do in our initiative was reduce those penalties for the crimes that still remain.
After Proposition 64 passes, lots of things that are completely illegal right now will be legal. For instance, to possess up to an ounce of cannabis is a $100.00 ticket, but after the initiative passes, that would be legal. Possessing eight grams of a concentrate right now is a misdemeanor, but that would be fully legal. To transport or give away up to an ounce [of cannabis] or eight grams [of concentrate] is a misdemeanor, but those things would be completely legalized. Home grow is a felony right now. For folks 21 and up, that becomes legal. If you're under 21, it's a misdemeanor, but that's still better than a felony. All of the behaviors or activities associated with marijuana are either reduced or eliminated completely under Proposition 64. The only two associated behaviors or penalties that remain felonies are selling to minors and home butane extraction.
Also, all of those reductions or eliminations are retroactive. For instance, growing up to six plants at your house right now is illegal. Let's say you were convicted for growing four plants at your house several years ago. Once Proposition 64 passes, you could petition to have your record changed based on the change of law. That's extremely important because we want to make sure we're not just moving forward and acknowledging the law should change. We have to repair the harms of the law that were on the books in the first place.
In a nutshell, why should people vote in favor of Prop. 64?
People should vote in favor of Proposition 64 because marijuana legalization should be about more than marijuana. It should be about people. It should be about safety and protecting communities and protecting all Californians. There are tons of protections for folks.
One of the last things I'll add is that a [medical] patient’s marijuana is still illegal right now. They just have immunity from prosecution under Proposition 215. What Proposition 64 does, is it takes marijuana and redefines it as a product that is not contraband. When substances are considered contraband, police officers are able to use those substances as "probable cause," or a legally justified excuse to stop, search and seize property and then use any evidence they find against them in a court of law. Because legal marijuana will no longer be considered contraband, police officers will no longer be able to use marijuana as a way to stop and harass people and then use other evidence they find against them. This is going to have huge impacts on communities, especially communities of color, so folks should consider this a social justice issue.
David Jenison (email@example.com) is Editor-in-Chief at PRØHBTD.