Marcos Bretón

Put this in your pipe and smoke it: California is ill-prepared for legal recreational marijuana

With Election Day nearing, it seems inevitable that voters will approve a measure that makes it legal for adults 21 and over to use marijuana recreationally.

Is California ready for the regulatory, social and health consequences of this? No.

Is the state prepared to cope with marijuana operations propagating in poor neighborhoods? Or with emergency rooms flooding with knuckleheads freaking out after eating one cannabis-spiked brownie too many? Or with more stoned people getting behind the steering wheel?

No, no and no.

California is not ready for any of this, which is why I’m voting no on Proposition 64. But according to polls, those of us on the “no” side are in the minority.

Everybody knows pot is proliferating no matter how we vote on Tuesday. It long has been a joke in plain sight.

Take pot delivery services. Not a single service is authorized to operate in the city. Yet, as The Bee’s Peter Hecht recently reported: “Two leading online pot-consumer sites, Weed Maps and Wheres Weed?, each list 110 marijuana delivery services in Sacramento and nearby communities, including in Yolo, El Dorado and Placer counties.”

The city of Sacramento sanctions only 30 licensed retail dispensaries. But as Hecht reported: “Freelance cannabis couriers already streaming on city streets easily dwarf the number of dispensaries.”

California joins Arizona, Massachusetts, Maine and Nevada on Tuesday in voting on recreational marijuana use. Several states, including Colorado, Washington and Oregon, already have approved it and many more states sanction marijuana medical use.

This even though the federal ban on marijuana has inhibited extensive study of its actual medical benefits. Pot remains a Schedule 1 drug under the Controlled Substances Act. However, the federal government has said it does not plan to enforce its marijuana laws in states that legalize recreational use, especially if those states adopt robust regulations to avoid abuses such as sales to minors or interstate trafficking.

But really, what is Proposition 64 other than a massive money grab?

The subtext to the entire “yes” campaign has been: Why not face up to reality and make money off marijuana? Many medical marijuana businesses stand to reap additional riches in the brave new word of legal recreational pot. Meanwhile, many cities are moving to get in on the action.

The city of Sacramento is scrambling to enact new ordinances that would seek to regulate the commercial cultivation and distribution of marijuana, which are already booming businesses on the black market.

It could mean millions of dollars for a city projecting budget deficits in the not-too-distant future. The allure is clear and understandable. But keep your eye on a fight over the money that is sure to play out.

The push is to funnel marijuana money into Sacramento’s general fund, which sounds good. But only two places in the city are poised to feel the real brunt of the exploding marijuana industry.

Can you guess which ones? Yeah, the less well-heeled neighborhoods in the north and the south of Sacramento. Wealth and influence run east to west in Sacramento and always have. North and south? That’s where we dump our problems.

And the council districts represented by Allen Warren in the north and Eric Guerra in the south are where the cultivation and manufacturing of marijuana largely will be located, based on the swaths of affordable real estate and allowable zoning in both council districts.

Shouldn’t these two council districts then get a percentage of the profits from legalized marijuana, to deal with direct impacts such as potential increased crime? They should, but we’ll see.

Guerra is uneasy about what commercial cultivation could bring to his district, which includes many struggling city neighborhoods south of Highway 50 like Lemon Hill and Elder Creek. “To me, there needs to be an acknowledgment that this is a new industry with a lot of unknowns of what that could mean,” he said. “We’re talking about two low-income districts adjacent to industrial corridors that will experience the positives and negatives. To say they won’t is a lie.”

Guerra said he gets weekly calls about illegal marijuana grows in residential neighborhoods, near schools and churches. “I’m not naive,” he said. “We have to figure out how to best regulate the market.”

The hope in Sacramento is that new cultivation and distribution ordinances will bring black market businesses into the mainstream. The hope is that the tax money to be made off those businesses would fund additional cops to go after the businesses that remain on the black market.

Will that happen? Nobody knows.

It’s why I’m voting no on Proposition 64. We’re just not ready yet.

Look at Colorado. Rocky Mountain voters approved the use of recreational pot in 2012 and it has been a mixed bag so far.

Some marijuana operators have made a ton of money, which is what’s driving California’s pot initiative. Some poorer communities, such as Pueblo, are divided over what pot businesses are doing to their neighborhoods.

In addition, the Colorado Department of Health found earlier this year that ER visits have spiked since recreational marijuana use became legal. This is true in part because many visitors to the state are ignorant of how potent pot can be, especially in edibles.

Meanwhile, some Colorado law enforcement leaders have said that legalizing marijuana has not eliminated the black market at all. “That’s been a fallacy,” said Cynthia Coffman, Colorado’s attorney general, in Fortune Magazine.

The states of Nebraska and Oklahoma have sued Colorado, alleging that marijuana legally grown in Colorado is flooding into their states. In the Fortune article, Coffman acknowledged that some marijuana growers “use the law to break the law.”

To be fair, polls show that legal marijuana still enjoys broad support among Colorado voters. A recent poll by Public Policy Polling found that 47 percent of Colorado residents believe recreational pot has been good for the state. Thirty-nine percent believe weed has been bad for Colorado, and 9 percent believe that legalizing marijuana has had no impact.

But that huge windfall from marijuana taxation? The Washington Post reported recently that “recreational marijuana brought in $129 million in taxes in Colorado and $220 million in Washington. Relative to the overall size of the state budgets, these numbers aren’t huge – they represent less than 1 percent of total state expenditures in both cases.”

So to review what we know: Private operators are profiting from legal recreational marijuana but poor neighborhoods have felt the burden of the new reality. Governments are making some money off it but not an overabundance of cash. Black market operators remain and officials are struggling to educate people about the potency of some marijuana products.

Do I feel great about voting no on Proposition 64? No, because marijuana is only becoming more prevalent. But based on what I know, I would feel worse if I voted yes for it.

Marcos Breton: 916-321-1096, @MarcosBreton


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