California Weed

Pot’s holy day brings new attention to legalization debate

Even amid their celebratory haze, the group of San Rafael kids called the Waldos surely couldn’t have imagined they were creating the Fourth of July for weed.

But now April 20 – 4/20 – is a cultural landmark for the evolution of marijuana in American society. Fueled by the legend of the California high school students who in 1971 used to get high at 4:20 p.m. each day, “420” is now a marketing term for pot doctors and retail marijuana stores stocked with designer bud strains that glisten in showcases like emeralds.

In many states, pot culture – medicinal or otherwise – is becoming a feature of Americana akin to Budweiser or Jack Daniels or perhaps even the backyard barbecue. State-regulated recreational marijuana sales are thriving in Colorado and Washington. Voters in 2014 approved legalization in Oregon, Alaska and the District of Columbia.

Twenty years after California became the first state to legalize medical marijuana use with Proposition 215, competing cannabis activists are vying to qualify measure for 2016 to legalize recreational pot and regulate a state-sanctioned marijuana industry in the Golden State.

And yet, on this 4/20, the political and legal status of marijuana in California remains murky – even as cannabis dispensaries in California offer pot holiday specials or as thousands of people in Colorado packed Denver’s Civic Center Park on Sunday, blazing fattie joints in an open-air Cannabis Cup.

California has America’s largest marijuana marketplace with medical marijuana alone. According to state tax officials and marijuana advocacy groups, the state produces an estimated $1.3 billion in taxable sales of pot. As many as 1.4 million people have doctors’ recommendations for medical marijuana.

And yet California’s massive retail-style pot industry operates largely without rules. It survives on the legal threads of nebulous 2003 state legislation – dubbed SB 420 – allowing patients with physicians’ recommendations to collectively cultivate and share marijuana.

Despite sweeping 2011 and 2012 federal raids on state marijuana businesses, the California Legislature in four consecutive years has not approved market rules and oversight. It may be left to voters to do so through ballot initiatives in 2016.

Yet the 4/20 marijuana celebrations reveal a generational change that even few marijuana advocates anticipated – especially in 1972 when California voters rejected marijuana legalization by nearly 67 percent to 33 percent.

“The general consensus was that legalization wasn’t on the table – it wouldn’t even be discussed,” famed cannabis author Ed Rosenthal said Sunday by telephone from Denver. “Now we’ve had a total change, as dramatic as civil rights, as dramatic as changing attitudes towards gays. We are in a total reversal of how society views these social issues.”

Rosenthal, renowned for his “Marijuana Grower’s Handbook,” continued: “It is a very, very heady time.”

On Sunday, in a pretaped interview with CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta, President Barack Obama appeared to offer acceptance for medical marijuana in contrast with federal law, which bans marijuana as a dangerous narcotic with no accepted medical use.

“I’m on record as saying that not only do I think carefully prescribed medical use of marijuana may in fact be appropriate and we should follow the science as opposed to the ideology on this issue,” Obama said. “But I’m also on record as saying that the more we treat some of these issues related to drug abuse from a public health model and not just from an incarceration model, the better off we’re going to be.”

Just last week, however, U.S. District Judge Kimberly J. Mueller in Sacramento rejected a legal challenge to marijuana’s federal listing as a Schedule I drug – akin to heroin and LSD – with no medical benefit and high potential for abuse.

Mueller’s ruling followed a 2013 ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit that said “substantial evidence” supports claims by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration that studies affirming accepted medical benefits of marijuana “do not exist.”

That legal finding came despite nearly a decade of state-funded clinical trials in California, in which UC researchers declared that marijuana was a promising therapy for pain related to nerve damage, spasticity and spinal-cord injuries in addition to boosting appetites and easing nausea for people suffering from cancer, AIDS or HIV.

The contrasting law and policy on marijuana extends to a 2013 Justice Department memorandum by Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole. The directive seemed to offer a potential landmark concession in federal marijuana policy after Colorado and Washington voters legalized marijuana for recreational use in 2012.

The Cole memo suggested the government wouldn’t bring prosecutions in states that enacted “robust controls” to regulate cannabis commerce, keep pot from kids, ban criminal networks from marijuana businesses, and protect public lands and the environment from illicit cultivation.

Yet, in a bitterly fought case, U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag in San Francisco continues to press a civil case to shutter Harborside Health Center. The Oakland dispensary bills itself as the largest medical marijuana provider in the world and a critical tax contributor for the city.

Meanwhile, with no meaningful legislative oversight passed in California, pro-marijuana activists say it is harder for authorities to crack down on rogue pot growers who are clearing forest lands and draining drought-starved streams. They say they will draft their own regulations for licensing and policing marijuana production if lawmakers can’t act.

“We need a top-down system that adheres to the Cole memo,” said Dale Sky Jones, chairwoman of the Coalition for Cannabis Policy Reform and executive chancellor of Oaksterdam University, a marijuana trades school in Oakland.

The Coalition for Cannabis Policy Reform is the organization considered most likely to place a recreational marijuana legalization measure on the 2016 California ballot. The group includes the Drug Policy Alliance, the United Food & Commercial Workers Union, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws and the NAACP – as well as architects of 2010’s unsuccessful Proposition 19 marijuana legalization measure.

Jones said the group hopes to agree soon on language for an initiative to legalize and regulate a commercial recreational marijuana industry as well as allow personal cultivation by California adults 21 and over.

Two marijuana activist lawyers, Heather Burke of Nevada City and Omar Figueroa of Sebastopol, have authored another legalization initiative that would create a state commission to regulate growers from “craft cultivators” with 100 plants or fewer to major retail producers.

A group called Californians for Compassionate and Sensible Access is promoting an initiative to recognize marijuana as “an alternative medicinal treatment” while banning state and local agencies from impeding “a patient’s ability to obtain, transport or cultivate cannabis.”

On Sunday, festive 420 weekend activities cast marijuana as readily available and well-established in contemporary culture.

The 420 dynamic drew scorn from Carla Lowe, a retired Sacramento teacher and counselor who founded Citizens Against Legalizing Marijuana.

“It’s party time, fun and games. That’s how 420 is promoted,” Lowe said. “But it’s not fun and games. Either people are irresponsible or they just don’t know or want to know what this highly potent, mind-altering drug is doing to our children.”

Yet Sunday’s Fyah on the Water “420 Weekend Celebration” at Sacramento’s Camp Pollock drew crowds to a riverfront festival of drum circles, performance art, food, craft beer and “a designated Prop 215 area,” for holiday-savoring guests with doctors’ recommendations for marijuana.

“Right now, it’s strictly medical,” said Kyle Cameron, a reggae musician helping to promote the Fyah event. “In the future, I can definitely say it’s going to be legalized. There is a shift in opinion and acceptance. People don’t even bat an eye when they see cannabis.”

At Northstar Holistic Collective, a Sacramento medical dispensary, customers were being treated Sunday with specials including discounts on designer marijuana strains and gift bags with prerolled joints, pot chocolates and storage jars for cannabis concentrates.

“The 420 phenomenon is basically a celebration of the (cannabis) industry and magnificence of this plant and what it does for people and the whole cannabis culture in general,” said Zachary Gaw, a consultant to the marijuana collective. “It’s absolutely not just for your hippie grandfather anymore. It’s for your state worker, your child’s teacher and your next-door neighbor.”

Call The Bee’s Peter Hecht, (916) 326-5539.

Related stories from Sacramento Bee