Well, the backers of a new effort to legalize marijuana in California learned at least one thing from the unsuccessful 2010 effort to make the state safe for dope smokers: It’s better not to have a pot dealer as the face of your initiative.
When the ACLU of California announced last week that they would be “studying” the questions of legalizing pot before putting an initiative on the 2016 ballot, it was Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom who was in front of reporters, talking about how “it is far past time for Californians to take a serious look at smarter approaches to marijuana.”
While you might question the reasoning behind putting someone who has had an admitted substance abuse problem (drinking, not smoking) at the head of a panel studying marijuana use, at least as lieutenant governor Newsom’s a guy with plenty of free time.
And an experienced politician is a big step up from Oakland’s Richard Lee, then head of one of the state’s biggest medical marijuana operations, who put up $1.3 million of his own money to put Proposition 19 on the November 2010 ballot.
Besides, with Allen Hopper of the ACLU talking about how “marijuana prohibition has harmed communities and families by needlessly ensnaring hundreds of thousands of people in the overburdened criminal justice system,” it doesn’t take a genius to know how this “most sophisticated effort ever undertaken to seriously study the issue of pot legalization” is going to turn out.
Even without the benefit of the ACLU’s blue-ribbon panel of 16 experts and their planned 18 months or so of study, I can come up with the legalization backers’ talking points for the 2016 election.
- Boy, will California make a bunch of money from this.
- Don’t worry, there will be really tough restrictions on the sale and use of the legal weed. Trust us.
- Other states already are doing it and the federal government doesn’t much care.
- Did I mention how much we’ll make off this?
If you think you’ve heard some of this before, welcome to the world of medical marijuana, which has been legal in California since the passage of Prop. 215 in 1996.
Let’s talk first about those really tight restrictions.
The medical marijuana measure was sold as the “Compassionate Use Act of 1996,” an effort to provide relief to people suffering from agonizing pain and debilitating illness. Think cancer, glaucoma and AIDS.
In the years since, however, a cottage industry has sprung up, consisting of storefront Dr. Feelgoods who are more than happy to provide a pot card to anyone who’s ever had a hangnail. If there’s anyone in California 18 or older who hasn’t been able to get that medical marijuana approval, he’s not really trying. Or the check didn’t clear.
As for the federal question, just ask Lee how that worked out. In 2012, Lee’s home and businesses were raided by federal agents, who seized – and kept — $180,000 they found on the premises.
And for all the recent make-nice talk from the feds about how there won’t be any trouble in Colorado and Washington, which have both passed legalization measures, what one president giveth the next one can taketh away. Possession and sale of marijuana remain a federal crime and what’s policy today might not be policy tomorrow.
Then there’s the money question. Supporters say if California taxes and regulates the sale of marijuana, it will bring in billions in new revenues, allow the state to lower taxes, provide new programs for its citizens and open a new Golden Age of Progress. Or something.
But that’s an argument that already was used with Indian casinos, with at best mixed results. Sure, California has collected cash from those many new banks of slot machines, but at what cost to communities?
Once the state begins making policy decisions based largely – or solely – on the amount of revenue it will bring in, where does it stop? If something is a bad idea now, does it become a good idea because the state can make some money from it?
A new pot legalization measure will have the virtue of honesty, something the slo-mo, wink-and-a-nod legalization planned by medical marijuana advocates never did. It will be an upfront bid to allow the recreational use of marijuana in the state and California voters will be able to make an up or down choice on it.
But it’s a decision that should be an informed choice by voters, with the pros and cons of legalization clearly spelled out. Don’t expect that sort of reasoned approach from the ACLU, which appears to have found the result it wants even before collecting the evidence.
John Wildermuth is a longtime writer on California politics.