California voters will decide whether to legalize marijuana

The first state to legalize marijuana for medical purposes, California leads the country in decriminalizing the sale and use of cannabis. Other states are considering the issue, too, but critics warn of the impact on young people.

Russel A. Daniels/AP
A tray of marijuana clones, for sale, sit underneath grow lights in the Peace in Medicine dispensary in Sebastopol, Calif. The lone medical marijuana dispensary in this Northern California wine country enclave has become such a pot destination that it has more patients on its rolls than the town has people.

California continues to stay at the nation-leading edge of legal activity concerning marijuana use.

In 1996 it passed the first national initiative to make marijuana available by prescription to relieve pain, nausea, and other physical maladies. In July of this year, Oakland became – by a wide margin (80 percent to 20) – the first US city to assess a tax on the sale of marijuana.

Now, a new initiative that will allow local governments to oversee and regulate cultivation, distribution, and sales – and to determine how and how much cannabis can be bought and sold within area limits – will be on the November 2010 ballot. National advocates say that regardless of the vote – signature gathering went fast and easy, according to reports – a major corner has been turned in national acceptance of marijuana use.

“Regardless of what the voters decide in 2010, the genie is not going back in the bottle,” says Paul Armentano, deputy director for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). “A majority of west coast voters, and an estimated one-half of the national public, are demanding that we replace our nation’s seven-decade-long policy of marijuana prohibition with one of controlled regulation, taxation, and education.”

Armentano says the citizen’s initiative is evidence that despite the growing public support for marijuana reform, a majority of elected officials still perceive the issue to be a political liability rather than an opportunity.

“As a result, it will be the voters, not the politicians, who will ultimately determine the direction of our nation’s modern marijuana policies,” he says.

Other states take up the issue

The California initiative comes amidst a flurry of activity nationally in the past two months after nearly two-decades of inactivity, according to Bruce Mirken, director of communications for the Marijuana Policy Project in Washington D. C., which advocates legalization of marijuana. California has a legislative bill in the offing, he says, as does Washington State while New Hampshire has recently introduced a bill and Rhode Island has adopted a commission to study ideas.

“There are signs all over the place that this has reached critical mass,” says Mirken, citing the photograph of Olympic superstar Michael Phelps last summer. He also says that law enforcement agencies have begun to realize the high cost of arresting, trying, and incarcerating marijuana users – money that could be better spent elsewhere. [Editor's note: The original version of this story mischaracterized the situation involving Mr. Phelps.]

“There is growing recognition that through our policies of prohibition, we have not stopped people from using marijuana, but rather handed this lucrative consumer market to some rather unsavory characters, including Mexican gangs,” says Mirken. “There’s a reason you don’t see Mexican wine cartels planting fields of cabernet sauvignon in Sequoia National Park, and people are beginning to understand that there really is a fundamental irrationality to laws that tolerate the far more dangerous substance of alcohol.”

Substance abuse activists say the headlong rush to legalization in this initiative has other motivations that ripple out in negative ways.

“Proponents of the proposed legislation are using the California fiscal crisis to say this will be a revenue-generating solution,” says Jim Hall, Director of the Center for the Study and Prevention of Drug Abuse at Nova Southeastern University in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. “What has been largely ignored in the legalization meta-debate, however, is the impact the legislation could have on young people.”

“We have developed a clear model with alcohol, but when we debate the legalization of marijuana, we don’t address the potential lifelong impact that earlier and easier access will have on young people,” says Hall. “While the proposed legislation might generate a few tax dollars, we need to ask what the cost to society will be for a whole generation exposed to the risk of lifelong substance abuse.”

'Right of passage' for adolescents?

He says there needs to be a better way to change patterns of marijuana use as a rite of passage for adolescents. “Clearly, affording legal access distorts the message of why young people should not use marijuana. If it’s legal, what’s the big deal? So goes the mindset.”

Hall points out that for the last 20 years, nearly two-thirds of all first-time marijuana users have been below the age of 18. Statistics also show that the younger a person begins marijuana use, the greater the risk of substance abuse later in life, he says. Therefore, it’s important to ask a host of questions: Who is going to determine or regulate how marijuana is produced and distributed? Who will it be distributed by? How is the state going to collect the taxes? Will it really have an impact on the illicit trafficking and production of marijuana? Will this lead to proposals to legalize other drugs?

“This is a largely unexplored policy that raises important questions and potentially dire social risks,” says Hall. “Before changing policy, let’s honestly and thoroughly explore these questions.”

Initiative advocates point to safeguards

Dan Newman, spokesman for the proposed Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis Act, counters that the initiative does includes significant safeguards and controls. For example, it will increase the penalty for providing marijuana to a minor, expressly prohibit the consumption of marijuana in public, forbids smoking marijuana while minors are present, and bans possession on school grounds.

He also says that studies by state tax experts – the Board of Equalization and the Legislative Analyst Office – show that the initiative will generate billions of dollars in revenue to fund schools, public safety, and other critical needs at a time when the state is desperate for resources.

“For those reasons, and the fact that most Californians understand that the current drug laws aren’t working, several recent polls show the initiative [will win] support from a majority of voters," says Newman. “We’re building a broad and diverse coalition that includes law enforcement professionals who understand that regulating marijuana will put street drug dealers and organized crime out of business, while allowing police to focus on protecting the public by preventing violent crime.”


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