It was supposed to be a straw that finally broke the prohibitionists’ back. It was supposed to be the crowning achievement of cannabis activism. Instead, California’s second attempt to legalize marijuana has become an insular fight pitting longtime growers against cannabis reformers.
With all things regarding marijuana, the controversy surrounding Proposition 64 — The Adult Use of Marijuana Act — is complicated. And the battle is as ugly as it is confusing.
Prop. 64 has the full support of nearly every pro-marijuana advocacy group across the nation. The voter initiative is leading comfortably in nearly every poll. American attitudes in favor of marijuana have never been higher. And yet, growers who have spent decades cultivating the plant and battling for progressive laws are actively rooting for defeat. What gives? Why are marijuana growers hoping in bed politically with Just-Say-No acolytes?
Follow the money
“I don’t want to replace a criminal injustice with an economic injustice,” said Hezekiah Allen, the executive director of the California Growers Association, a marijuana trade group.
Allen, a third-generation marijuana farmer in Humboldt County — the hub of the world famous “Emerald Triangle” where some of the best plants are cultivated — is not alone in his concerns.
The California Growers Association is taking a neutral stance on Prop. 64 after a recent survey found an even split among its 750 members: 31 percent in favor, 31 percent against, and 38 percent undecided.
Opponents fear the legislation will mean costly taxes and regulations and shrinking prices. And, of course, many abhor the creeping corporate interests that might force smaller operators out of the industry altogether.
“Legalization will end our way of life up here. Period. End of story,” said one long-time grower who wished to remain anonymous in the tight-knit community of Mendocino. “I’ve been doing this for 38 harvests and I am almost certain this is my last,” he said.
The average price of wholesale marijuana has dropped from $2,030 a pound in January to $1,664 in August, according to Cannabis Benchmarks, a cannabis pricing outfit. And wholesalers were getting closer to $3,500 not too long ago. In the out-of-state black market, the prices have also dipped.
It’s the economy, stupid
California is the sixth-largest economy in the world and is the state produces more cannabis than any other state. (Medical marijuana has been legal in the state since 1996. The state’s black market is responsible for most of the domestic inventory.)
According to most experts, the combined legal and illegal market for marijuana is worth an estimated $30 billion. If California, as expected, legalizes weed, that figure would soar.
Market research firm New Frontier estimates that California’s marijuana sales would skyrocket from $2.76 billion in 2015 to $6.46 billion by 2020.
Some farmers detest the law, but fear a ballot defeat would, in the long run, be the wrong move. “If we vote against it, California may lose its No. 1 position,” said the unnamed Mendocino farmer. “Colorado, Oregon and other states are already ahead of us in the legal market. If we want in, the time may be now.”
The ballot battle for marijuana is not confined to California. Arizona, Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada will vote on full, adult-use legalization on Nov. 8. Arkansas, Florida, Montana and North Dakota will decide on medical marijuana programs.
Ground zero for legalization
But California is considered to be Ground Zero for legalization in 2016. In fact, many consider this vote the tipping point of the marijuana movement. As with other social trends and movements, California often leads the way.
And that includes political financial muscle. Pro-cannabis supporters have poured nearly $25 million in donations.The No on 64 side has received less than $2 million.
“If an overwhelming number of states that have marijuana-specific initiatives on the ballot pass those measures, that could be interpreted by federal lawmakers as a mandate,” said Paul Armentano, deputy director of NORML. “But if several of them do not pass, then it is likely that lawmakers will continue to be reluctant to address marijuana law reform at the federal level.”
But it’s not all about commodity economics and electoral politics. Lost amid all the tumult and infighting among marijuana advocates, are the medical patients. And they have their own concerns.
Some longtime beneficiaries of California’s lax medical program are fighting against unfair taxation of their medicine and restricted access. Some patient advocates believe Prop. 64 will essentially gut the state’s medical program. But not all agree.
“This measure is first and foremost a public health measure,” according to Dr. Donald I. Abrams, chief of hematology-Oncology at San Francisco General Hospital. “It will fundamentally change California’s approach to dealing with marijuana, generating necessary resources to improve public health, allowing for more clinical research, and strengthening the physician-patient relationship.”
A victory for social justice
So, as the economic, political and medical stakeholders continue the divisive —but maybe unavoidable —debate, one thing is clear: The criminal justice component of the debate cries out for reform.
“Reforming our marijuana laws is an important civil rights issue,” says Alice Huffman, California chapter president of the NAACP. “The current system is counterproductive, financially wasteful and racially biased — and the people of California want it to be fixed. This measure will ensure that California is not unjustly criminalizing responsible adults while ensuring that our children and our communities are protected and vital state and local services are funded.”
Even as more and more Americans support legalization, citizens, disproportionately people of color, are still being put behind bars for nonviolent drug arrests. There were 574,641 arrests made for simple marijuana possession in 2015, which means that someone is busted every minute in the U.S. for carrying around cannabis. The incidents are dropping, but legalizing cannabis in California would dramatically sink that number.
On Election Night 2o16, most Americans will gaze at the Hillary Clinton-Donald Trump electoral map with mad anticipation. But one of the biggest battles of the night will be all about cannabis. The tipping point.
So what does this mean for you?
For all the ruckus surrounding California’s Proposition 64 (The Adult Use of Marijuana Act) — and by no means is it an ideal piece of legislation — there are some demonstrable benefits for legalization.
Benefits for patients:
- No change or limit to the protections provided by the Compassionate Use Act (Proposition 215).
- Patients with voluntary ID cards can still buy state tax-exempt medical marijuana from licensed dispensaries.
- Patients would still be able to grow marijuana. With Prop. 64, all adults are allowed to grow up to six plants.
Benefits for parents:
- Parents will no longer be discriminated against for using medical marijuana. Prop. 64 would take corrective actions on child custody laws.
- The legislation provides funding for teen drug prevention and treatment programs.
- Prop. 64 provides the “toughest-in-the-nation protections” for children.
Benefits for social justice:
- Current penalties for marijuana crimes are disproportionately enforced against people of color. The law will eliminate or reduce these penalties.
- These penalty reductions will be retroactive. Past convictions for crimes eliminated by Prop. 64 may be expunged from a criminal record.
- Protects Californians from being discriminated in the workplace.
- Law would limit minors’ access to marijuana by prohibiting marketing and advertising to youth.
Benefits for the economy:
- The legislation will raise an estimated $1 billion in new tax revenues annually. It will also save the state millions of dollars in reduced taxpayer costs (arrests, jails, etc.)
- Support economic development in minority communities disproportionately impacted by marijuana prohibition.
- The legislation will provide millions of dollars for research.