A how-to guide for legalizing pot

Jacie Ann Crowell of Arizona displays oils that can be infused with cannabis during an April workshop in Sacramento for potential recreational marijuana business owners.
Jacie Ann Crowell of Arizona displays oils that can be infused with cannabis during an April workshop in Sacramento for potential recreational marijuana business owners. hamezcua@sacbee.com

A panel of academic, legal and law enforcement experts led by Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom has produced a sensible set of recommendations on how California should legalize recreational marijuana, if that’s the path we choose.

Unfortunately, there’s no guarantee these smart policies will be built into any of the legalization initiatives possibly headed to the November 2016 ballot.

A new initiative reform, however, gives the Legislature the opportunity to work with advocacy groups to improve a marijuana ballot measure. In its report issued Wednesday after two years of study, the Blue Ribbon Commission on Marijuana Policy gives legislators a helpful blueprint.

Rightly, the panel says that California should be cautious and stop the industry from becoming like tobacco and alcohol, dominated by a few large companies. The commission correctly prioritizes protecting children and promoting public health and safety over maximizing tax revenue.

Devising a fair and efficient system of taxation is particularly thorny. The commission doesn’t recommend a tax rate, but does discuss the advantages of taxation at every level of cultivation, processing and sales. It also says that taxes can’t be so high that it pushes customers into the illegal market, and that revenue should help pay for enforcing limits on sales to people under 21 and on growing pot on public lands.

Importantly, the report spotlights the importance of preventing environmental damage from cultivation and of recognizing the drought’s impact.

We can learn some lessons from states that have already legalized recreational pot. For instance, the panel says that pot brownies and other edibles, which turned out to be a problem in Colorado, need to be tightly regulated.

But California is much larger than Colorado, Oregon and Washington state, and we’re different. We have large cities and vast rural swaths, including state and national parks. We have a population that is ethnically diverse, with large numbers of youths and poor residents. As the panel says, we need “laws and regulations that are specifically tailored to California.”

In its 93-page report, the panel doesn’t try to settle every potential issue. It emphasizes that legalization would require successful implementation over many years.

What we don’t want, however, is a repeat of Proposition 19, which some legalization proponents got on the 2010 ballot. It was badly flawed and went down to a deserved defeat.

Moving toward a potential proposition next year, this could be the first big test for the 2014 initiative reform law championed by Darrell Steinberg, the former Senate president pro tem. It is designed to change the “all or nothing” system in which initiative backers can’t make even minor fixes once they start gathering signatures.

Under Senate Bill 1253, the Legislature can negotiate with initiative proponents, who can withdraw their measure if lawmakers help create a better product.

The operative word here is “can.” Other than holding a public hearing, the Legislature isn’t required to do anything. And given its frustrating inability to reach consensus on how to clean up the medical marijuana mess, there’s reason to doubt its will to act.

Yet if California voters are going to get another chance to decide this issue, everyone’s goal ought to be to present them the most well-drafted measure possible.

To make that happen, Newsom and other commissioners have done their part. Legislators will need to do theirs.