Not So Fast! Know the Side Effects of Marijuana Legalization before You Vote

DEEGAN ON CALIFORNIA-In California, smoke is in the air, along with a warm glow of anticipation, as voters are asked to legalize weed statewide by voting “yes” on Prop 64, the California Marijuana Legalization Initiative

From the “Golden Triangle” at the northernmost edge of the state, to the Mexican gateway at our state’s southern extreme and from the ocean to the deserts and the Sierras, weed is consumed by Californians daily. It’s illegal under Federal law, but legal for some under a state law that allows for the dispensing of “medical marijuana.” 

If passed by the voters on November 8, Prop 64 will allow anyone age 21 and older “to possess one ounce of cannabis for recreational use, and to grow up to six plants for cultivation.” It’s an honor system; nobody can imagine these restrictions will be binding or really enforceable. 

But what else do we need to know? What might we not be considering beyond just the headlines? Will unanswered questions about the marijuana ballot proposal be a “buzz kill” to the high life? Growers, dealers and consumers may rejoice, but there is a whole as yet unformed infrastructure that is still wide open for review. 

What are we looking at? There are farm-workers and growers, the taxman, the bankers, the Feds, felons, cartels, vapers, quality control, producers and abusers…plus lots of weed. Figuring out how to tax, regulate and control marijuana will have to follow its legalization. 

The “Golden Triangle” of Mendocino, Humboldt, and Trinity counties, situated contiguously north to south at the very top of the state -- with two of them fronting the Pacific Ocean where fresh, moist air helps cultivation, similar to the wine counties south of the triangle -- is allegedly the largest cannabis-producing region in the United States and possibly the world. This is where urban legend supposes that 60 percent of the nation’s herb may be grown. The problem with illegal trade, though, is that there are no metrics that quantify the scope of production at this “ground zero.” Note also that the votes for passage will be harvested from the major population centers like the SF-Bay area, Los Angeles and San Diego. 

Proponents for the “get high on weed” campaign run the gamut, trying to appeal to everyone. Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom, who is possibly running for higher office, has endorsed legalization. (He wants to be Governor in 2018 and a victory for Prop 64, a campaign that he is so closely identified with, could boost his chances.) Newsome chaired the state’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Marijuana Policy (BRC) to study legalization. Stoner Tommy Chong (“Dave’s not here”), whose personal brand promotes getting high, already markets “Chong’s Choice, a line of flower buds” in Washington state where weed is legal. The California Democratic Party and the California Nurses Association union are among the many other supporters. The “no” group is politically non-partisan, including U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) and the California Republican Party, along with many law enforcement agencies. 

Giving the people what they want -- there are many who like getting high often, sometimes daily -- is not such a bad idea, especially if the state can monetize it and bring in new tax revenues. Long ago, the “sin taxes” on tobacco and alcohol were enacted to make what some considered morally dubious products acceptable. It was a balancing act in which the known risks of tobacco and alcohol were offset by the cash revenues they could bring into state and local economies. 

Legalization of pot was on the California ballot in 1972 via Prop 19; it was defeated by a not-even-close seven percent spread. But that was before medical marijuana, drug courts, drug diversion programs, the boom in drug recovery programs and the general decriminalization of marijuana for personal use were part of the picture. 

Two states, Colorado and Washington, have recently legalized marijuana without dire consequences. Colorado voters overwhelmingly approved a “Rocky Mountain high” by a landslide thirty-nine point spread; and Washington state’s voters emphatically voted yes for legalization with a seventeen point spread. California Proposition 215, the Medical Marijuana Initiative was passed by the voters in 1996. 

But, before you vote “yes” on Prop 64 for legalizing pot, here are some questions to think about – a possible hangover from any marijuana high:

  • Big Tobacco - Will small producers be protected by encouraging a “craft” production paradigm (like craft beer), or will Big Tobacco be allowed to dominate the production process?
  • Growers - Who can grow weed? How do we keep this a “down home” business and not have the grower community be swamped by carpetbaggers rushing into the state, like some reenactment of the 1849 California Gold Rush? Will a residency period be required?
  • Labor - Will the marijuana industry be labor-friendly? Does marijuana cultivation and processing need to be unionized to protect workers’ rights and provide for collective bargaining? For mom and pop growers, probably not. But for Big Tobacco-like growers, probably yes.
  • Taxation - How will cannabis be taxed, and where will the tax revenues go? Taxation is one of the most compelling reasons to legalize weed. Colorado, with 12% of our state’s population, collected $1 billion in marijuana tax last year, reports Fortune magazine

Is it conceivable that Golden State weed sales could provide the state with billions of dollars of tax revenue annually? Today, “sin taxes” (taxes on cigarette and alcohol sales) are projected in the state budget to bring in under one-half-billion dollars in revenue. Weed, with potentially billions in taxes, would be the biggest sinner/winner of them all. What to do with the tax, and the numerous claims for a piece of it, will be very important. Careful thought must be given to programs that can benefit from the new revenue stream so the state doesn’t just rely on drug taxes the way addicts rely on drugs.

  • Banks - How to deal with the Feds and banks? Federally insured banks will likely not allow drug money to process through their systems, because possession of weed, or drug money, is against federal law. A banking alternative needs to be created to eliminate the dangers associated with a cash business. Medical marijuana dispensaries are routinely robbed of both their cash and their merchandise. That cannot be allowed to happen here.
  • Cartels - What about the Mexican drug cartels? How will they react to the possible evaporation of the currently illegal market to which they are the principal suppliers? Legalization may shut off the demand for their product, or, if they feel threatened by market forces, force them into aggressive tactics to preserve at least a market share, if not their dominance of it. They could copy new templates for quality control, create their own branding, and push their product through their well-established underground distribution networks, seriously underselling California growers and denying the state treasury of sales and excise taxes.
  • Felons - Will ex-felons be allowed to be employed in the marijuana industry? The cultivation and marketing of weed will be a big business, with or without Big Tobacco, and this new industry may grow into a large employer. Will any of the thousands who have been convicted of marijuana-related crimes be allowed employment? The BRC says let them work. What will lawmakers say?
  • Vaping and the contact high - How will weed and vaping commingle, as vapers exhale lungs-full of pot smoke into the general population? Some may like the unexpected “contact high,” but it’s a public safety issue.
  • Medical use - What should be done about pricing so as to stabilize both the medical and recreational marijuana markets? With a pricing imbalance, one sector or the other could inflate demand in order to force up prices.  
  • DUI - What to do about people driving while stoned? How long does the effect of THC (tetrahydrocannabinol, the primary psychoactive, mind-altering ingredient found in the cannabis plant) stay in the blood system, and what impact will that have on a field sobriety test that could come days after use of weed? What about people, many of them, that smoke weed daily? Should they be allowed to drive if they ingest more than a threshold level, and what would that level be?
  • Purity - How to tell what’s in your weed? Microsoft may have an answer to this with a software program that tracks marijuana plants from “seed to sale” that will keep tabs on sales and commerce. If industry standards are agreed on by a yet to be formed trade association, Microsoft’s software could include those quality designation labels as part of their tracking system. This would give the retailer and consumer a complete provenance record from planting the seed to inhaling the smoke.
  • Water--Where’s the water coming from to irrigate pot cultivation in the midst of an ongoing drought? 

Lots to think about as you consider your vote on Prop 64. And there’s more to it than the stoner generation’s anthem (dating back to 1966 and held sacred ever since) penned by newly minted Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan: “Everybody must get stoned.”


(Tim Deegan is a long-time resident and community leader in the Miracle Mile, who has served as board chair at the Mid City West Community Council and on the board of the Miracle Mile Civic Coalition. Tim can be reached at Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.