Efforts to legalize pot in the Golden State are so familiar as to seem both quaint and ripe for action at the same time. Come Nov. 2, voters will cast their ballots again on a proposal to legalize marijuana for recreational use in California. Despite recent polling, which generally shows an uphill battle for legalization, the discussion surrounding Proposition 19, also called the “Legalize, Control and Tax Cannabis Act,” is different than fringe legalization debates in years past, and this campaign is possibly more realistic because of it. This time around, it’s not about hemp or personal freedom or medical use; it’s about money. California lawmakers and voters could be more willing to expand their minds if it means shrinking the state’s massive $20 billion budget gap.
Or, as Sonoma State University political science teacher David McCuan puts it, “There’s no one else left to tax. So the people to tax are the sinners—the people who gamble, drink and smoke dope are the only ones that the state can generate revenue from.”
In 1996, Californians made history with Proposition 215, which allowed people with chronic illness to use marijuana with a doctor’s recommendation. More than a dozen states followed suit, despite federal laws prohibiting it. Many opponents of Prop. 215 said then that it would be the beginning step toward broad state legalization. Still, possession, cultivation and distribution of marijuana remain illegal and readily prosecutable under state law, sometimes even with a doctor’s note.
Prop. 19 is a pretty straightforward effort to legalize and tax marijuana in California. It is framed much the same as existing alcohol laws, with prohibitions against driving while smoking, smoking at schools and a requirement that users be 21 years old. Unlike alcohol laws, the amount of marijuana that a person could possess and grow would be limited to one ounce of pot and a 25-square-foot garden. That’s the legalization side. How, exactly, the government would tax and control marijuana is not clear, since the initiative contains no specific tax plan or structure. The tax issue is left for local governments to figure out.
Opponents’ message is virtually the same as it always was: legalization will lead to increased use among young people, increased addiction, more stoned drivers on the road, stoners in the workplace and a possible clash with federal drug enforcement officials—or even loss of federal contracts and funding if employers can’t legally require employees to be marijuana-free. Mothers Against Drunk Driving has come out strongly against the measure, as well as many law enforcement groups and both gubernatorial candidates, though Jerry Brown was a supporter of Prop. 215.
Actually, despite 215’s popularity, medical marijuana advocates are split on Prop. 19 with the leading advocacy group, Americans for Safe Access, calling for a “no” vote, and Oaksterdam University founder, Richard Lee, largely bankrolling the Yes on 19 campaign.
What makes this round a little different from past efforts is not the split among medical marijuana supporters, but that it has won support from several large, mainstream groups. Service Employees International Union, the largest labor union in the state, officially lent its support to Prop. 19, and so has the National Black Police Association (NBPA), which might be a first.
Prop. 19 proponents are framing the current legalization debate around potential tax revenues and law enforcement savings. The non-partisan Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO) said the potential boon to tax revenues is not easy to calculate. “To the extent that a commercial marijuana industry developed in the state,” the LAO said in a recent report, “We estimate that the state and local governments could eventually collect hundreds of millions of dollars annually in additional revenues.”
It’s a lot of money, but as SSU’s David McCuan puts it, “There isn’t enough dope in the state to close that budget gap. There hasn’t been a pot farm discovered yet that’s big enough.”
Meanwhile, groups like the NAACP, the NBPA and the ACLU are calling legalization a civil rights issue, pointing to the disproportionate number of non-white inmates in the penal system as a result of what they charge is a selective enforcement of drug laws. According to the NAACP, blacks make up less than 7 percent of the state population but account for 22 percent of people arrested for all marijuana offenses and 33 percent of all marijuana felony arrests, though actual marijuana use among black and white Californians is about the same. The NAACP called California incarceration rates a modern sort of Jim Crow.
The potential savings to tax payers that would result in abolishing jail sentences for possessing marijuana would be tens of millions of dollars each year, according to the LAO. That’s a lot of money, but it’s still an order of magnitude away from closing the state budget gap.