Politics & Government

As Colorado, Washington legalize recreational pot, California mulls its options

On New Year’s Day in Colorado, state-licensed marijuana stores will begin selling pot purely for pleasurable consumption.

Colorado, already home to the nation’s most regulated medical marijuana industry, expects to open its first two dozen stores selling recreational cannabis users up to an ounce of pot each. Another 400 applications are pending for retail marijuana shops, commercial cultivators or pot product producers.

In Washington, where voters also legalized recreational marijuana use in November 2012, the state is reviewing a flood of applications for 340 state licenses for marijuana stores expected to begin opening this spring.

Now in California, where a recent Field poll showed 55 percent voter support for marijuana legalization beyond medical use, four pot legalization ballot initiatives have emerged as contenders for the November ballot.

Yet in the home of America’s largest marijuana economy, advocates remain hesitant about moving forward – and putting the necessary money on the line – to qualify a California pot legalization vote next year. They remain uncertain over the state’s political climate and are frustrated by failure of lawmakers to set rules governing California’s medical marijuana trade, once estimated at $1.5 billion, in the face of federal raids on cannabis businesses.

Some advocates want California to have a regulatory scheme in place for the marijuana market before moving forward, while others argue that 2016 will present a more favorable voting poll for broader legalization.

Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, said in a conference call last week that the marijuana legalization votes in Colorado and Washington will most likely lead to similar ballot measures in Oregon and, possibly, Alaska next year. He suggested that as many as six states – including Nevada, Massachusetts, Maine, Arizona and Missouri – could vote on legalization measures in 2016. But he is undecided on timing for California.

Last month, Drug Policy Alliance, a legalization group backed by business magnate and philanthropist George Soros, submitted a proposed 2014 California ballot initiative – “The Control, Regulate and Tax Marijuana Act.” It would legalize possession, use and cultivation of marijuana in California regardless of medical need and put the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control in charge of licensing pot growers, distributors and retail stores in a recreational marijuana industry.

“There is something about what happened in Colorado and Washington that made it all real. Legalization went from being an abstract policy option to a political reality,” Nadelmann said. And yet he said the Drug Policy Alliance will wait until February before declaring whether a 2014 California vote is viable.

“California had got good polling and good support, but it’s obviously a huge state and very expensive to do a campaign,” said Nadelmann. He said the group may stick with its original plan to launch a California marijuana legalization initiative in the 2016 presidential election year, with its larger pool of younger voters.

Should DPA move forward next year, other advocates led by Ed Rosenthal, a famed marijuana author and cannabis-growing guru, say they will place a rival measure on the 2014 ballot because they oppose the drug policy group’s proposal for a 25 percent gross receipts tax on pot businesses.

Rosenthal said he has financial backing for his alternative measure, the Cannabis Policy Reform Act of 2014. Submitted to the state last week, it calls for 6 percent taxes on commercial marijuana production and sales, and state rules for indoor and outdoor pot cultivation.

Another coalition, led by medical marijuana dispensary interests, has been approved for signature gathering for an initiative to create a Cannabis Control Commission to regulate the existing medical marijuana industry as well as recreational sales. Meanwhile, a group inspired by Jack Herer, a legendary California cannabis advocate who died in 2010, is collecting signatures for a little-funded measure to repeal state marijuana laws and expunge criminal records for anyone convicted of nonviolent pot offenses.

For now, people on all sides of the marijuana debate are mostly watching Washington and Colorado.

“I think California is watching on the sidelines to see how this shakes out,” said Dale Gieringer, California director for the National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws. “Let’s have Washington and Colorado on the line and see whether they can get this adult (recreational) use market working and also see what happens to medical marijuana.”

John Lovell, lobbyist for associations of California narcotics officers and police chiefs, said Colorado and Washington will diminish enthusiasm for expanded pot legalization in California by “demonstrating the social harm that will be done” through recreational marijuana sales.

However, commercial pot sales in the two states got a boost Aug. 29 when a U.S. Justice Department memo said federal authorities won’t target licensed marijuana businesses in states “implementing strong and effective regulatory and enforcement systems” to govern cannabis cultivation, distribution and sales.” The memo by Deputy Attorney General James Cole said the government will continue to prosecute marijuana operations tied to criminal enterprises, pot sales to minors and trafficking to states where marijuana remains illegal.

In California, law enforcement has strenuously opposed marijuana industry regulations, with Lovell declaring that police won’t accept any bill authorizing “free-standing pot shops.” Marijuana regulations failed in the last two legislative sessions and are expected to be resumed next year.

“In California, we have the particular dilemma in that the Legislature is incapable of agreeing on how to regulate medical marijuana,” said Stephen Gutwillig, a Los Angeles-based deputy director for the Drug Policy Alliance. “And they are incapable of advancing marijuana reform.”

In contrast, Colorado has moved quickly on its voter-approved recreational marijuana market because the state already had a regulated medical marijuana industry, including state-licensed cannabis workers and retail outlets and meticulous tracking of marijuana sales.

Over recent months, those regulations have been amended to enable existing medical marijuana stores to open up new retail sales areas, with separate rooms and entrances, for recreational pot. “We immediately decided we needed to recognize the will of the people and roll up our sleeves and find a way to effectively, efficiently implement the law,” said Jack Finlaw, chief legal counsel for Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper.

Colorado and Washington will allow pot sales only through marijuana-specific retailers, much like current dispensaries. So recreational users won’t be able to pick up their strains of Blue Dream, Purple Urkle or Vanilla Kush at the corner liquor store.

Washington is still grappling with how to create regulations for existing medical marijuana stores as it is working to implement the voter-approved law – Initiative 502 – allowing retail sales of recreational pot. While state limits under the new law restrict Seattle to 21 retail licenses for recreational marijuana, the city is already teeming with 200 unregulated medical dispensaries. Those stores will have to close – or be licensed – by 2015.

“What we’re experiencing is a little bit of growing pains,” said Alison Holcomb, former director of the Initiative 502 campaign.