California | Up in smoke

How a referendum to legalize marijuana failed in California

Volunteers with the Yes On 19 campaign to legalise marijuana make phone calls to voters at the group’s headquarters at Oaksterdam. DAVID PAUL MORRIS / BLOOMBERG VIA GETTY IMAGE
01 January, 2011

LEGALISING MARIJUANA should have been an easy sell in laid-back, pot-friendly California. The leaf is ubiquitous here. Whiffs of the distinct, sticky-sweet odour of pot smoke hang around nightspots, house parties and even busy downtown streets.

The Golden State was the first to officially allow medicinal use of marijuana back in 1996. Legalising recreational use would have been the next logical step in a state reputed for thinking out of the box and showing the way to the rest of the United States.

Yet last month Californians rejected a ballot proposal to decriminalise cannabis use.

The proposal—Proposition 19 or the Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis Act—called for allowing anyone 21 or older grow and possess marijuana, and for permitting local governments to tax retail outlets selling the drug.

Richard Lee, a wheelchair-bound marijuana patient and entrepreneur who introduced the ballot measure in March, believes taxing and controlling cannabis cultivation and sale—a 14 billion dollar (631 billion rupees) industry in California would end the current ‘grey area’ under which the industry operates and bring tax dollars of up to 1.4 billion into the state’s recession-hit coffers. He says it would also free up police resources and reduce nonviolent marijuana use arrests that disproportionately target minority youth.

“To me, most of all, it’s a moral thing, all the other positive benefits are added bonuses,” says Lee, who forked out 1.5 million dollars from his own fortune to fund the proposition.

Pot possession under any condition is illegal under the federal Controlled Substances Act. Which means, even in California and 14 other states where medical marijuana use is legal, the industry operates in quasi-legal zone. Marijuana activists hope legalising and regulating the drug at state levels will ultimately force the feds to do the same.

America has had a long and checkered relationship with cannabis. In the 1600s it was widely used for pain relief and the government actually encouraged using  hemp plant fibers for making rope, sails and clothing. In the early 1900s, after Mexican immigrants introduced recreational use of marijuana, fear and prejudice about the “foreigners” resulted in pot being associated with murder, insanity and sex crimes. In the 1960s it was recast as a drug that made users slow and slothful, but its popularity among the counterculture hippy generation led to the birth of a movement to legalize use. In the 1990s marijuana began to be accepted as a herb that helps patients suffering from chronic pain, cancer and AIDS. Starting with California in 1996, a total of 14 other states and the District of Columbia have since legalized medical use of cannabis. The latest to joint the bandwagon is Arizona, which voted aye on Nov. 2.

Initially, Prop 19 created quite a positive buzz across the US since marijuana use has been gaining increasing acceptance among Americans. In California, early polls indicated a majority of voters were pro-legalisation. However, by the time November rolled around, support for the initiative began to fizzle. On Election Day, Prop 19 failed by a 7.8 percent margin.

So what happened between May and November to cause the initiative to go bust?

As the election dust settles, emerging answers all point toward the current quasi-regulated state of the marijuana industry in California and a decided reluctance among a section of pot’s traditional supporters—growers, suppliers and users—to change the status quo.

New marijuana users already feel they have easy access to the drug in California. All you need to get a doctor sign off on a medical marijuana card is to come up with some sort of chronic pain complaint and submit yourself to a physical examination. The card allows a person to carry 225 grams of the dried leaf or 160 pot cigarettes. There are an estimated 200,000 physician-sanctioned pot smokers and nearly 300 dispensaries in California. It’s not unusual for medical marijuana to make its way around to recreational users for a small fee (One person I talked to actually handed me a ‘sample packet’ for free).

Any sense of urgency around the legalisation issue among users was further neutralised a month before the elections when Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed legislation that made possession of up to an ounce of marijuana the equivalent of a traffic ticket, subject to a maximum 100-dollar fine and no arrest or criminal record.

“That for me was as good as legalisation and I think many Californians felt the same way. It took the wind out of Prop 19’s sails,” says David M Ruddy, a Berkeley-based musician, who still voted yes.

On the growers’ and suppliers’ side, Prop 19 raised fears of large tobacco industry-like corporations taking over,

lowering prices and pushing out mom and pop pot dispensaries and family-owned farms that currently make up the bulk of the industry. The initiative received little support from the state’s infamous marijuana-growing ‘Emerald Triangle’ of Humboldt, Mendocino and Trinity counties.

Besides, many growers in California live off the grid and have no interest in paying taxes. Among those who do pay, or were willing to be taxed, a pre-election statement from US Attorney General Eric Holder saying that the feds would “vigorously enforce” federal anti-marijuana laws if Prop 19 was passed, was a major put off. Why vote for taxation when all it will do is ensure the feds beat a path to your door?

The measure’s failure in the Emerald Triangle also highlighted hinterland farmers’ growing resentment of the increasing clout of city-based pot entrepreneurs like Lee.

Lee is based in Oakland, across the bay from San Francisco, where he’s considered the de facto mayor of a nine-block area in the city, dubbed Oaksterdam. Medical cannabis in a variety of smokeable and edible forms (cookies, pies, salad dressing, etc.) is sold in several licenced cafés and dispensaries here, some of which are owned by Lee. He’s also founder-president of Oaksterdam University, a non-accredited educational facility and ‘political institution’ for medical pot growers and activists. Since it was set up in 2007, with its green, white and gold CAN NA BIS emblem (a cheeky nod to Harvard’s VE RI TAS), the university has become the epicentre of California’s marijuana legalisation campaign. For many growers Oaksterdam and Lee represent the beginnings of corporate takeover.

But Lee brushes such concerns aside. “I think that scenario is years away because until federal law changes it’s gonna be difficult for really big growers to come in,” he says.

What he does admit though, is that the yes campaign didn’t do a good enough job of addressing these concerns, targeting young voters or highlighting why legalisation was desirable. “I think we need to do a better job of talking about how California already collects 100 million dollars a year in medical marijuana sales taxes and all these companies, including mine, pay federal income taxes,” he says.

Lee also agrees that the wording of the proposition itself might have been problematic. “A lot of people said they were for legalisation but they still voted against it. So maybe they had particular issues with the proposition that we can work on and tweak and make better next time,” he says.

And there will be a next time.

Legalisation supporters are already gearing up for the 2012 elections, and it’s clear that the tide is turning in their favour.  The 46 percent ‘yes’ vote for Prop 19 was the highest ever for any general marijuana legalisation proposal in the United States. Even opponents concede that full legalisation is inevitable. Roger Salazar, spokesperson for the No on Prop 19 campaign says the main reason the initiative failed was because it was “so poorly written.” He’s right. A Greenberg Quinlan Rosner survey taken two days after the elections showed 31 percent of those who voted against Prop 19 believed “marijuana should be legalised or penalties for marijuana should be reduced” but opposed the specifics of proposition.

It looks like California’s largest cash crop is all set to emerge from the shadows. As Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, a national drug reform organisation, says—it’s not a matter of if, but when.