How will California change if voters make marijuana legal?
Polls show California voters may well approve Proposition 19, which would make marijuana legal in the state. Costs and benefits are hotly debated by both sides.
Tony Avelar/The Christian Science Monitor
In a street-level flat of offices off a downtown sidewalk here, computers hum, volunteers make calls, and James Rigdon explains why Proposition 19 – California's ballot initiative to legalize marijuana – should pass.
"The decades-long war on drugs has failed," says the field director of the Yes on 19 campaign. "It's still easier for a kid to get his hands on a joint than to get a beer or a cigarette. Sixty percent of drug cartels' money comes from marijuana sales. We need to take that away."
Several blocks away, Livina Hedgerow, kneeling in her garden, says Prop. 19 is a bad idea.
"This is just what we don't need," says the retired teacher. "Another legal drug for kids to get messed up on. It will lead them to worse drugs. It's just wrong."
The two comments frame the debate swirling in California over Prop. 19 and what the state would look like if voters make it the first in the nation to legalize, regulate, and tax the sale of marijuana.
Opinion polls show Yes on 19 holding the advantage with a little more than a month to go before the Nov. 2 election. Among likely voters, 47 percent support the measure, while 37 percent are opposed, according to a survey released Sept. 15 by Public Policy Polling. The poll's margin of error is 3.9 percent. Back on July 5, a Field Poll of likely voters had the opposition leading, 48 percent to 44.
As Election Day nears, the propaganda war is intensifying, with the two sides expecting that whatever happens in California is likely to be replicated elsewhere, eventually.
"The whole country and world are watching," says Kim Raney, vice president of the California Police Chiefs Association, which has come out against Prop. 19. "That's why it's absolutely critical that the public here have a serious discussion based on the facts without spin."
Fundraising surrounding the ballot measure has been relatively modest, says Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation. Prop. 19 proponents have raised almost $2 million, while opponents have brought in $95,100, she says. Moreover, about $1.3 million was spent to qualify the measure for the ballot. "This is a very low-budget campaign so far," says Ms. Alexander.
As described on voters' ballots, Proposition 19, known formally as the Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis Act of 2010, "changes California law to legalize marijuana and allow it to be regulated and taxed." The law would:
•Make it legal for people 21 and older to carry up to an ounce of marijuana, and to grow and transport it for personal use.
•Prohibit people from smoking marijuana in public, on school grounds, or while minors are present.
•Allow local governments to regulate the cultivation or sale of marijuana and set their own fees or taxes.
•Prevent people from being punished, fined, or discriminated against for lawfully using marijuana.
One side, which includes marijuana advocates and some law enforcement associations, religious figures, and unions, says the 40-year drug war is a failure. Passage of Prop. 19 will be a relief for the state, which arrested nearly 80,000 on marijuana charges in 2009, they say.
"Like an increasing number of law enforcers, I have learned that most bad things about marijuana – especially the violence made inevitable by an obscenely profitable black market – are caused by the prohibition, not by the plant," says Joseph McNamara, a former police chief of San Jose, Calif.
The other side, which includes the California Chamber of Commerce, the Association of California School Administrators (ACSA), and the California Police Chiefs Association, says Prop. 19 is a poorly written initiative that will degrade society and won't do what proponents say it will. It will also introduce clashes with federal law, they say, which could cost school districts federal funding.
"The average voter has been told this will produce over $1 billion in revenue for the state, but nothing could be further from the truth," says Mr. Raney. "The law as written leaves it up to cities and localities to each come up with their own regulation and taxing scheme, which means we will have up to 478 different blueprints. It's a public-policy disaster."
California's crippled economy is providing traction for nonpartisan findings that Prop. 19 would have tax and job benefits. The California State Board of Equalization estimates that Prop. 19 could generate $1.4 billion in annual tax revenue for local governments, and create between 60,000 and 100,000 jobs.
A 2009 study by California NORML, an organization dedicated to liberalizing the state's marijuana laws, says legalization would save more than $250 million in costs for the arrest, prosecution, trial, and imprisonment of marijuana offenders. The study also predicts that economic activity generated by legal marijuana could total $12 billion to $18 billion.
"Amsterdam-style coffeehouses would generate jobs and tourism. If the marijuana industry were just one-third the size of the wine industry, it would generate 50,000 jobs and $1.4 billion in wages," says the study.
Citizens opposed to Prop. 19 decry the effect it would have on society. Many envision full-scale farms growing marijuana as a cash crop, or convenience stores offering "morning toke" booths alongside coffee and doughnuts. Some are concerned about the proliferation of head shops frequented by low-life "stoners" and neighbors with pot-growing tents in the backyard. And some can already picture billboards that glamorize pot smoking, the way they do drinking, going up near schools and churches.
"Cicero once said that democracy works well when the citizens have virtue. Well, I don't call legalizing dope having virtue," says retired Menlo Park high school football coach Ray Solari. "They said legalizing gambling would help the schools, and now look what we have. This will only lead to more problems."
ACSA says Prop. 19 could throw some schools out of compliance with the federal Drug-Free Workplace Act of 1988, which requires employers who receive more than $100,000 in government funds to keep employees free of drugs. ACSA executive director Bob Wells says passage of Prop. 19 could cause schools to lose as much as $9.4 billion in federal funding, and could endanger students.
"The initiative as written includes language that prohibits employers from going after employees they suspect may be high," says Mr. Wells. "So you can imagine our concern if we suspect that a teacher or bus driver is under the influence."
ACSA also holds that marijuana will not be regulated in the same way as alcohol or other drugs, and that there is no standard of impairment like that which exists for alcohol. Proponents of Prop. 19 counter that California's legislature will be able to quickly establish a legal limit.
Another unknown surrounding the passage of Prop. 19 is how the Obama administration might deal with regulation and enforcement.
"The federal government is committed to enforcement of the Controlled Substances Act, and the Department of Justice will continue to focus its enforcement resources on significant traffickers of illegal drugs, including marijuana, in all states," reads a Justice Department statement. "It is premature to speculate what steps we would take in the event that California passes its ballot measure."
Prop. 19 also faces opposition from what seems an unlikely group: medical marijuana users and producers. Medical marijuana has been legal in California for 14 years, and established growers in the Bay Area worry that their livelihoods will be destroyed if Prop. 19 passes and entrepreneurs proceed with plans to turn Oakland (already a production and distribution center) into a "Silicon Valley of pot." Medical marijuana users, too, say they foresee a loss of product quality and choice, as assembly-line cannabis production pushes aside the quality and variety they've come to expect.
"We are just starting to see complications with the maturation of the marijuana industry and marijuana politics, as the reality of ending marijuana prohibition becomes more likely," says Stephen Gutwillig, state director of the Drug Policy Alliance, a national organization working to find alternatives to marijuana prohibition. "Oakland is trying to figure out how to best regulate an already-sizable piece of the local economy in a way that maximizes order, local revenue, and benefits to medical marijuana patients."