As a journalist, I’ve been closely following the effort to legalize marijuana in California for at least the past five years. In the wake of Colorado, Washington and Oregon legalizing the recreational use of cannabis, there’s an assumption that California voters will follow suit in the November election. However, legally regulating cannabis for both medical and recreational use is turning out to be akin to herding cats. It doesn’t matter if you’re for legalizing marijuana or against it, there’s something not to like in virtually every proposal. Here are 7 reasons why cannabis is driving Californians crazy.
1. Marijuana Legalization Is Not A Slam Dunk
Those who think legalization is a foregone conclusion best think again. Last year the Public Policy Institute of California asked state residents, “Do you think the use of marijuana should be legal, or not?” Overall, 53 percent responded that it should be legal, 46 percent said it shouldn’t. Democrats favored legalization 63 percent to 36 percent, but Republicans opposed it 54 percent to 44 percent. While marijuana proponents are encouraged by the overall poll numbers, a 7-point spread today by no means ensures victory at the ballot box in November, especially on an issue that remains deeply divisive.
2. More Initiatives Than You Can Count On Two Hands And One Foot
When it comes to crafting initiatives, marijuana proponents face a difficult dilemma: They must placate the state’s existing medical marijuana community at the same time they reassure rural conservatives that all hell won’t break loose when and if recreational cannabis is legalized. To that end, there are currently 17 marijuana-related state initiatives attempting to gather enough signatures to qualify for November’s ballot. Which one is best? Nobody agrees! Check the madness out at Ballotpedia.
3. Weed Is The New Unicorn
In early January, Silicon Valley billionaire Sean Parker, of Napster and Facebook fame, threw down $500,000 for one of the 17 initiatives, the Adult Use of Marijuana Act. According to mainstream media, Parker’s involvement instantly turned the AUMA into the frontrunner, despite the fact that few people have read, let alone understood the act’s voluminous 62 pages. Some members of the marijuana community who have read it are not impressed, and a major backlash to the AUMA has developed. It’s not like Parker has the Midas touch when it comes to marijuana initiatives. In 2010, he contributed $200,000 to Prop. 19, the Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis Act, which was somewhat surprisedly turned down by California voters, 53.5 percent to 46.5 percent.
4. Can’t We All Get Along?
To say that California’s medical marijuana community is divided on the 17 marijuana initiatives currently circulating would be putting it mildly. Many patients and growers who have for two decades navigated the state’s first-in-the-nation Compassionate Use Act passed in 1996 are deeply concerned that most of the initiatives currently circulating do not do enough to protect patient access. With every week bringing new evidence concerning marijuana’s efficacy in treating various diseases, especially cancer, it’s a bitter pill to swallow. The aforementioned AUMA grants cities and counties local control to continue banning the cultivation, distribution and sale of cannabis. The California Cannabis Hemp Initiative, the Cannabis Control and Taxation Act and the California Craft Cannabis Initiative would prohibit cities and counties from banning the cultivation and sale of marijuana. Read more about the differences between the initiatives here.
5. Local Control Remains A Major Obstacle
Current estimates of the amount of tax revenue that can be raised by legalizing marijuana range as high as $1 billion annually. That sounds like a lot of money, but it’s less than 1 percent of the state’s fiscal 2015-16 budget of $168 billion. It’s certainly not enough to convince rural counties and cities to abandon local control of their zoning districts, as evidenced by the reaction to the Medical Marijuana Regulation and Safety Act passed by the Legislature last fall. The act required the state’s 482 cities and 58 counties to create their own guidelines by March 1 or abide by state law. In response, many cities and counties moved to totally ban medical marijuana cultivation, distribution and sales. Pro-marijuana group Americans for Safe Access reports 97 cities and 10 counties have banned cultivation because of the deadline. Anderson has banned cannabis delivery services and Shasta County is currently working on new zoning restrictions. Meanwhile, on Jan. 28, the Legislature voted unanimously to remove the March 1 deadline and extend it indefinitely
6. Do The Crime But Don’t Pay The Fine
Measuring the effectiveness of the medicinal cannabis restrictions enacted by rural cities and counties, including Redding and Shasta County, is difficult. I’ve encountered many people in Shasta County who didn’t grow outdoors after Measure A went into effect last year. I’ve also encountered a few people who kept right on growing. For this latter group, the pay-off is apparently worth the risk, and figures recently released by Butte County may indicate why. Last year, the county spent $375,000 on enforcement, eradicating 34,556 plants and levying nearly $3 million in fines. Sounds like a money-maker, right? Except so far Butte County has collected just 6 percent of the total in fines, $175,171. Turns out many of the people cited didn’t live in Butte County, including illegal immigrants responsible for some of the largest grows, and have subsequently left the area.
7. Thanks Obama!
Taxing cannabis will not make illegal activity go away. Higher prices due to taxation will encourage consumers to seek out affordable alternatives. As long as cannabis remains a federally controlled substance that is illegal in most states, the black market will continue to exist to meet the demand. Don’t expect President Barrack Obama to provide federal relief via executive order before he leaves office. Legally, the president could remove marijuana from the list of controlled substances, but he has shown no indication he is willing do so.