SAN FRANCISCO -- For the first time, over half of Californians are expressing support for the legalization of non-medical marijuana, according to new statewide survey results. With support having possibly reached a tipping point and efforts to produce a 2014 ballot initiative already underway, what might legalization look like in California?
The survey, conducted by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) with funding from the James Irvine Foundation, shows that 52 percent of Californians, as well as 60 percent of likely voters, support legalization. As recently as March of last year, PPIC found that support was at 45 percent.
“Our state has for many years lived with medical marijuana – not to say it isn’t controversial in locations, but it’s generally accepted,” PPIC president Mark Baldassare told The Sacramento Bee. “It’s really now a different political context for having discussions about where does California go with legalization.”
Over 60 percent of both non-Hispanic whites and African Americans are supportive, as opposed to 36 percent of Latinos. Some 48 percent of Asian Americans express support. Across all age groups from 18 to over 55, support stands at about 50 percent.
Lynne Lyman, the California state director of the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), a national non-profit that advocates for drug law reform, attributes the shift to a more informed public. “There’s a consensus that marijuana is less harmful than tobacco or alcohol,” she says.
Lyman says that if a ballot initiative legalizing marijuana were to pass in California in 2014 or 2016, the state would have to “develop a regulatory infrastructure from scratch,” but she wouldn’t foresee it being challenged in the way that, for example, Proposition 8 was challenged in the context of same-sex marriages. And for now, she says, the Department of Justice is allowing Washington and Colorado to implement their recent legalization of marijuana, though the DOJ could decide to change its approach in the future.
Lyman adds that legalization would result in “tremendous tax revenue” for the state; according to DPA, California could raise $1.4 billion annually by taxing and regulating marijuana sales.
Law enforcement opposition
Lyman says that law enforcement groups constitute the primary vocal opposition to legalization efforts. The California Police Chiefs Association, for example, has consistently opposed legalization efforts; the last California ballot initiative to legalize marijuana was Proposition 19 in 2010, which the vice president of the association said, among other things, would be unsafe for workplaces and roadways and would generate far less revenue than supporters estimate.
Going against the trend is Stephen Downing, a retired Los Angeles Police Department Deputy Chief who sits on the board of directors of advocacy group Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. He says that the greatest harm of the war on drugs has been the mass incarceration of non-violent drug users, especially African Americans and Latinos; according to DPA, two out of three people in state prisons for drug violations are African American or Latino, despite the fact that these groups use and sell drugs at rates similar to non-Hispanic whites.
Downing worked in South Central Los Angeles and in narcotics enforcement for much of his 20-year career in the 1960s and ‘70s.
“We’ve branded them for life as drug offenders. We deny them housing when they need it; we deny them employment. We fail to recognize that because they can’t find employment, they sell drugs. They can’t get a Pell grant to go to college,” he says. “So what we’ve done is destroyed lives, and we’ve destroyed the communities they come from, especially black and brown communities because of disparities [in enforcement and sentencing.]”
He points out that law enforcement groups come out against legalization in part because some local police departments have financial incentives to enforce federal anti-drug policies. Local law enforcement agencies in California use federal grants (for example, Byrne Justice Assistance grants) to fund narcotics enforcement, including task forces that focus on drug-related arrests and marijuana eradication.
Civil asset forfeiture laws, which allow law enforcement agents to confiscate private property that they believe is associated with illegal activity (often drug-related) without having to file criminal charges, are another source of revenue for local police departments.
Downing gives the example of a landlord in Anaheim who’s been served with a seizure notice by the federal government because he rented to a medical marijuana dispensary. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency worked in cooperation with local Anaheim police to investigate the dispensary, and if the property is seized, the DEA and Anaheim police would share the profits under a policy called “equitable sharing.”
Drawbacks for small commercial growers
Lyman acknowledges that with increased regulation, some growers will lose their businesses. “Not everybody has the means for playing by the rules,” she says. “Growers will need to obtain permits and show that they’re adhering to standards for safe growing, and not doing things like growing on federal park land.”
Central Valley native Jeremy Evans, who has been a marijuana grower and worked within Northern California’s marijuana industry for the past seven years, says that most of the growers he knows are opposed to legalization, but not only because it could put some of them out of business.
He says that many growers have spent years elevating the quality of their product; marijuana cultivation is labor intensive, and Evans says he works 14-hour days in the summer and fall, when the plants mature and are then harvested. With legalization some growers fear that the market could become dominated by mass-producing growers of greater financial means, who he says won’t approach cultivation with the same depth of knowledge, and might make use of chemical additives the way the cigarette industry has with tobacco.
“There will always be a niche, though, for [higher quality] marijuana,” he says. “It’s like microbrews in the beer industry – there will always be a market for it.”
Possible ballot initiatives
In September, a group called the California Cannabis Hemp Initiative (CCHI) was authorized by the California Secretary of State to begin collecting signatures for a ballot initiative that would attempt to legalize marijuana in November 2014. The state Legislative Analyst’s Office has reported that CCHI’s initiative would save the state hundreds of millions of dollars related to law enforcement and incarceration, and would generate hundreds of millions in tax revenue.
In 2010, Proposition 19 failed, with 54 percent voting against legalization. Exit polls found broad opposition across all ethnicities, and the failure was alternately blamed on high opposition among older voters and low voter turnout among younger voters.
CCHI campaign coordinator Michael Jolson says that his group’s initiative protects small commercial growers by prohibiting excessive regulatory measures and limiting licensing fees.
“Prices [of marijuana] will be affected, but the demand for organic cannabis will continue. Our initiative prohibits the government from overly regulating growers or allowing them to get swamped by big corporations,” Jolson says.
The Drug Policy Alliance is not backing CCHI’s measure, in part because of its lack of emphasis on regulation. Lyman states that her group is undecided as to whether it will move forward with its own legalization initiative in 2014 or 2016, but that any initiative would include more comprehensive regulatory and safety requirements for the industry, as well as protections for minors and restrictions on advertising.
Lyman believes that legalization would result in minors having less access to marijuana because of the regulation of sales, so she hopes to engage parent groups and children’s advocacy organizations in the Drug Policy Alliance’s efforts.