How we legalize marijuana: Introduction

Everyone says recreational legalization of marijuana is on the horizon for California in 2016 – by the ballot, of course, since legislators don’t have the guts. The Control, Regulate, and Tax Adult Use of Marijuana Act, submitted last November, with an Internet billionaire and multiple advocacy organizations behind it, is the most likely of any of those submitted to actually make it to the California ballot in 2016 and win. If the Act wins, we’re stuck with it in a number of ways (the Legislature can amend it but only within limits), so it’s good to look at it carefully.

(Links to: full text, official title and summary, fiscal estimate, and campaign website.)

The short version: If this law reaches the ballot as is, I would vote for it and urge you to as well. Legalization is a moral urgency, a hump we need to get over. But hopefully more provisions will be added, either before it reaches the ballot or by other means after it wins, to help shape the industry in a more equitable way less vulnerable to the risks of commercialization.

I write wanting to spread information and analysis, but I of course come to this work with a particular viewpoint: the prohibition of marijuana is unconscionable and needs to be brought to an end as quickly as possible. It is not simply irrational but also deeply oppressive, destroying lives wholesale, not only through the traumatic and disruptive experience of prison itself, but also through the huge limitation of work options after even minor convictions, and more broadly breaking down the communities most targeted by the drug war, which is to say people of color. California’s present system of legalized medical use is better than the alternative, but it is a poor in-between hodgepodge. We have very light penalties for simple possession, a fine of $100 which is removed from your record, not life-destroying on its own, but possession for sale of any amount is still a full felony, and the vagueness of what constitutes “for sale” is a great recipe for disparate racial treatment by law enforcement. Then too, most actual production and distribution, even that supplying legal dispensaries, is officially illegal and still puts non-privileged participants at risk. Make no mistake, the current system is not an effective legalization: there were 13,300 felony arrests relating to marijuana in the state in 2014, and 6,411 misdemeanor arrests

With experts agreeing marijuana is much less harmful than alcohol, and society at large agreeing marijuana is not a significant social problem, the next logical step is to bring the entire industry into legal status where it can be more effectively and equitably regulated. The biggest state in the county taking the legalization route would be also a major signal that it can work nationwide, with an overhaul of federal laws.

But at the same time, legalization has its perils. I do not follow the libertarian take that people should be left completely free to self-harm: regulation to guide and assist people away from bad decisions they may make on their own is perfectly sensible in abstract. Also, a legal industry can go on to use campaign finance and cozy relationships to profit at the expense of the public good. This is a real concern, and we can’t ignore it.

Because the Act is so voluminous, and raises so many issues, I have broken my writeup into a series of posts, as follows. I will be posting one section each day through Saturday and adding links retroactively.

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