California marijuana street fair fuels debate over legalization

The International Cannabis & Hemp Expo outside Oakland City Hall this weekend includes a spot where medical marijuana cardholders can light up – another round in the fight over legalization.

Eric Risberg/AP/File
In this Oct. 2010 photo, Susan Recht smokes a marijuana cigarette at the San Francisco Medical Cannabis Clinic. Supporters of legalizing recreational marijuana will try to win over California voters again next year, after the secretary of state's office in July cleared them to begin circulating ballot petitions.

Standing outside a medical marijuana dispensary in southern California, Lucy Baldwin muses on one of the great social and political debates here.

“I thought the threat of marijuana acceptance in California was over with the defeat of Prop. 19, but now it seems to be back,” says the single mother of two teens. “I think it’s a bad idea for grownups to be modeling behavior that is ultimately very detrimental to youth. It leads them in the wrong direction.”

Morgan Fox, communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project, holds an opposite opinion.

RELATED QUIZ: How much do you know about marijuana?

“When we stop blowing it out of proportion as a society and learn to deal with this commonly used substance in a calm and reasonable manner, we see that the sky does not fall and life goes on as before,” he says.

The two comments frame a debate that is being fueled by the International Cannabis & Hemp Expo outside Oakland City Hall this weekend – a five-block street fair including music, booths, hundreds of vendors, and a designated area where medical marijuana cardholders can light up weed.

Once projected to win by a large margin, California’s Proposition 19 – which would have allowed local governments to regulate and tax the legal sale of marijuana – was narrowly defeated last November (54-47 percent).

But proponents say public attitudes have been changing for several years and that the expo is the latest evidence.

Although some local residents are against the idea, marijuana advocates say the event is no big deal because it was held at Oakland’s Cow Palace two years in a row and is moving to the street simply because of a state moratorium on drug use inside state facilities.

“Events such as this are not new in California and elsewhere. This seems like it is simply the first one to be held in the street,” says Fox. “Providing medical marijuana patients with a place to use their medicine privately and away from minors, while still enjoying a public festival or other event, is a considerate and rational course of action.”

Pro-marijuana forces are seizing the opportunity to repeat their selling points from the initiative battle – that far from leading kids astray, legalization would improve the quality and safety of the product while providing income for law enforcement.

“The fact that Oakland officials seem eager to hold this event on city property shows just how much legalizing and regulating the cannabis industry has benefited the city,” says Tom Angell, media relations director for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a Massachusetts organization that describes itself as “made up of current and former members of the law enforcement and criminal justice communities who are speaking out about the failures of our existing drug policies.”

“Bringing the marijuana trade above-ground not only allows the city to take in much-needed tax revenue it otherwise wouldn't have,” Angell says, “but it reduces crime and violence by putting the street gangs who would otherwise sell marijuana to people who want it out of business.”

To Lucy Baldwin, those arguments are simply the nose of a nice-looking camel nudging its way into her tent.

First came California’s Prop. 215, the 1996 ballot initiative that legalized personal use of medical marijuana for those who had doctor’s prescriptions. That was followed by the proliferation of dispensaries which, she says, legitimized people who were only thinly-veiled drug dealers and who sold drugs too close to schools, playgrounds, and churches.

Oakland’s Oaksterdam University opened in November 2007 to offer training for the cannabis industry with a stated mission to “legitimize the business and work to change the law to make cannabis legal.” It has graduated over 8,000 students. Campuses have since opened in Los Angeles, Sebastopol, and Michigan.

Since expo organizers are selling the $20 tickets to adults only and limiting entry points, they expect only about 20,000 people to attend. But Baldwin says the speakers, vendors, booths – and pot smell – will be in everybody’s face.

“Kids will look over and see what’s going on and will wonder why it’s so exclusive and that will make it cool to them,” she says. “We don’t need this.”

But marijuana advocates point to several polls over the past 10 years that show public resistance to marijuana is dying out in several parts of the country. That has come with the high financial cost of fighting the drug war and the high social cost of locking up thousands of people when regulating it could provide revenues to economically-strapped law enforcement agencies.

“Events such as this reflect the reality that despite 70-plus years of federal prohibition, cannabis culture is not only surviving but thriving,” says Paul Armentano, deputy director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), also on the faculty of Oaksterdam, in an email.

“Oakland voters and city officials have consistently voiced their support for marijuana legalization and regulation, as is evident by their willingness to embrace this event,” he says. “It makes no sense for the federal government to continue to cling to a policy that improperly classifies the tens of thousands of people attending this weekend’s event as criminals who deserve to be arrested, prosecuted, and incarcerated for their use of a substance that is objectively safer than either alcohol or tobacco.”

RELATED QUIZ: How much do you know about marijuana?

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