The War on Drugs has been a quagmire. Far too many marijuana users – particularly people of color and poor people – have been arrested and jailed.
But voters should be wary of Proposition 64, the well-funded, slickly marketed initiative on the Nov. 8 ballot to fully legalize recreational marijuana in California. Despite our concerns for social justice, we recommend holding off on this measure.
Too much of it appears commercially, rather than socially driven. It backslides from California’s leadership in the war on another product that is generally smoked – tobacco. And from stoned drivers to potent edibles that, in other states, have endangered children, it poses too many public health risks that could be headed off if we just took our time and legalized in a way that isn’t so rushed.
Backers contend Proposition 64 is a civil liberties issue. And police do use marijuana as probable cause to investigate and, sometimes, arrest people, even if those arrests, which disproportionately affect poor black and Latino Californians, rarely lead to convictions and amount to harassment at times.
But the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation reports not a single person is in state prison today because of marijuana possession. Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed legislation decriminalizing marijuana possession in 2010. After years of inaction, the Legislature last year approved detailed regulations for medical marijuana. No one with a medical marijuana card – and they’re readily available from physicians who advertise 4/20 services – risks so much as a ticket.
That’s as it should be. Marijuana use should not be a crime. No adult should be hassled for what he or she smokes or ingests behind closed doors, and drug abuse, in general, should be treated for what it is, a malady.
This attitude has become the consensus in California, which is why the cannabis industry has blossomed here, and why Proposition 64 is actually so much more about business than social justice.
Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, the initiative’s main promoter, repeatedly says he has no desire to create a new California Gold Rush. But initiatives are the ultimate tool of moneyed interests. Wealthy funders draft them to suit their business models.
In this instance, a small number of individuals, corporations and dark money organizations that don’t disclose their donors have paid for the initiative with more than $16 million in donations of $250,000 or more.
Shaped by their lawyers and consultants, the complex 62-page initiative would help foster an industry that would retain lobbyists and lawyers who would mold regulations to their liking. Marijuana entrepreneurs would seek to expand their market, not limit weed’s use.
One million-dollar donor is Weedmaps, a startup whose former CEO, Justin Hartfield, told The Wall Street Journal that he envisioned becoming the Philip Morris of the marijuana business, a reference to the world’s largest cigarette maker. That ought to give any student of California politics pause, given the tobacco industry’s clout in the Capitol.
The initiative does contain some protections, would generate $1 billion a year in taxes, imposes some marketing restrictions, and would require testing of the product. But it runs counter to much of what California has stood for, public health-wise. Indeed, public health advocates are asking voters on the same ballot to raise the tobacco tax by $2 per pack to curb the smoking of cigarettes.
It poses serious issues around driving. We’re regularly cautioned against texting behind the wheel. Alcohol is the primary cause of more than 500 deaths on the roads each year in California. Stoned motorists pose a hazard, too. Proposition 64 would use revenue generated by new taxes to develop a standard for driving under the influence of cannabis. But a standard should be in place before the drug is fully legalized, in our view.
Anti-tobacco experts who have studied Proposition 64 also say it lacks provisions that would allow for the sorts of successful educational efforts developed by California public health authorities to dissuade people, particularly youths, from smoking tobacco.
Instead, the regulatory scheme envisioned by Proposition 64 is more akin to the liquor business, another formidable lobby force. While alcohol is regulated and not legally sold to minors, it’s also a heavily promoted, advertised and normalized product. The same would happen with legalized marijuana.
The initiative puts some limits on advertising, but they are similar to those used by the alcohol industry. Digital advertising, an increasingly important way to reach young customers, is mentioned once, without definition, or specific limitations.
The initiative would ban billboards within 1,000 feet of schools. However, it defines schools as being kindergarten through 12th grade, so ads could be near college campuses and aimed at those students, who are not all 21.
Then there’s the question of timing. States that have legalized marijuana have only just begun to release preliminary data. Californians could collectively make a much better-informed decision in two or four years.
A March report prepared by the Colorado Department of Public Safety, the most comprehensive so far, suggests some important considerations. For example, one might assume that legalization would end marijuana as a law enforcement concern.
Certainly, arrests are down in Colorado. But Denver police also report significant increases in citations for public smoking. Instances in which people were cited for marijuana use within 1,000 feet of Denver schools increased from 24 in 2014 to 120 in 2015.
Another problem involves edible cannabis, often marketed like candy. Between 2010 and 2013, hospitalization in Colorado for drugs including marijuana was 1,440 per 100,000 people. From 2014 through June 2015, after full legalization, that number had grown to 2,413 per 100,000. The Rocky Mountain Poison and Drug Center reported marijuana poisoning is up among children age 8 and younger, and among kids 9 to 17, suggesting adults are leaving their edible cannabis lying around.
In Colorado in 2013, before legalization took full effect, 8.1 percent of drivers in fatal car crashes who were tested had cannabis in their system. In 2015, that percentage had increased to 12.4 percent, or 68, the Colorado Department of Transportation reports.
We read polls and understand that legalization is popular, particularly among young voters. But once approved, laws adopted by initiative are all but impossible to roll back without going back to the electorate. For all the spin by backers about how carefully they wrote Proposition 64, the initiative is not fully baked. Or maybe it’s cooked just right for the entrepreneurs promoting it.