California is definitely going to pot, but how far remains uncertain.
The state has had a thriving and very lucrative, if illegal, marijuana industry for decades. Indeed, with the demise of timber and other resource activities, it’s become a mainstay in some communities, particularly on the remote North Coast.
In recent years, marijuana edged into quasi-legality with the passage of a ballot measure authorizing cultivation, sale and possession for medical purposes – embraced in some communities, rejected in others and in violation of federal law everywhere.
Just weeks ago, the Legislature passed a package of bills aimed at further legalizing – and regulating – the medical uses of pot. And this week, the most ambitious of several ballot measures aimed at complete legalization was unveiled.
Sponsored by several national and state cannabis groups, and with the deep-pocketed backing of former Facebook president Sean Parker, the measure would, in essence, put marijuana on the same plane as liquor, cigarettes and gambling as a state-sanctioned and -regulated vice.
If the effort succeeds, it would mirror, politically, what happened in gambling, incrementally expanding from a minor activity – a few bingo and poker parlors – into a multibillion-dollar casino industry dominated by Indian tribes.
And, as with casino gambling, it could be a transformative experience for at least some local communities.
For one thing, legalization could fundamentally alter the economics of getting high.
Illegal marijuana, particularly the high-intensity variety grown on the North Coast, is pricey, and that has meant immense profits for growers who are clever enough to avoid periodic eradication campaigns by state and local authorities.
Legal marijuana could be grown on a far greater scale, without the costs of concealment, driving the unit price downward. There’s already a semi-debate underway within the state’s agricultural industry over whether farmers more accustomed to growing food crops should take the plunge – including throwing their support to the Parker initiative or one of its competitors.
Some in the industry are arguing that if they don’t act, they’ll be frozen out by those willing to get into the trade in a big way.
Potentially, therefore, legalization could be an economic downer for communities that have enjoyed the proceeds of the illegal trade and a boon for others more suitable for big-scale production.
Then, too, perhaps we’ll see what happened in wine as specific growing areas such as Napa, known as appellations, supplied high-quality, highly specialized libations while other regions produced lower-price potables for the mass market.
Could Humboldt Gold, which evolved from an Afghan strain and achieved a global reputation for quality and potency, carve out a niche for itself among aficionados, just as Napa’s wines have done?
Could we even see a marijuana competition mirror wine judging at the state fair in Sacramento a few years hence?
That’s certainly not out of the realm of possibility.