Marijuana Blues

It was a bad week for marijuana. The ballot initiative its supporters hope to put over the top in California in November is barely above water among voters.

A new poll by the non-partisan Public Policy Institute of California shows 49% in favor of it, 48% opposed. Only 3% are undecided. Historically, support for California ballot initiatives tends to decline as Election Day approaches. This means proponents face a steep climb if it is to pass on June 8. 

Confusion reigns as to what the measure will do. Marijuana remains illegal under federal law.

In 1996, California voters approved Proposition 215, allowing the use of small amounts of marijuana for medical purposes. This is sold at licensed dispensaries. Some cities have tried to ban or control the number of dispensaries. Los Angeles, for example, has decreed that 439 of the city’s approximately 600 dispensaries must close by June 7. 

To be eligible to buy medical marijuana, the customer must obtain a letter of recommendation (not a prescription, which would be illegal) from a physician. Most of these are legitimate, although some are given with a wink and a nod. 

The new initiative would allow those 21 and older to “possess, cultivate or transport marijuana for personal use.” Presumably, they could offer it to friends in a social setting, but not sell it. The measure would allow local governments (not the state) “to regulate and tax commercial production and sale of marijuana.” 

Proponents tried to gain general support by conjuring up visions of huge amounts of new tax revenue that could help offset current budget deficits. Consider this, however: A company begins a big marijuana “grow” in public view, processes it, sells it, files and pays local taxes. Federal narcotics agents swoop in and shut the operation down because it violates federal law.

If this passes, look for it to produce very little local tax revenue and nada, zilch, for the state.

Proponents of this quasi-legalization plan scoff when critics say marijuana is an “entry” drug that leads to harder drugs such as methamphetamine, crack cocaine, heroine. Yet, on the Northern California coast where there are usually two or more drug house busts weekly, inevitably, the seizures include growing marijuana, processed marijuana, methamphetamine, crack cocaine and heroine, along with firearms and cash. Two to half a dozen or so denizens who run these operations are arrested. Surely they were not making this stuff for their own pleasure.

In Sonoma County, home of many premium wineries, the other day the sheriff seized more than 10,000 marijuana plants in a “garden” with a street value of approximately $21 million.

Even medical marijuana isn’t immune. In Colorado, which passed such a law in 2000, a suburban Denver man bragged to a television station that he would make nearly half a million dollars off his basement crop. This brought a federal raid, seizure of 200 plants and threats of prison and a large fine. The case is in the courts now.

Opposition is not limited to law enforcement officers. Alexander Cockburn, in his newsletter “Counterpunch,” with a large and largely left-wing readership, points out that marijuana is much stronger than it once was and cites instances of its inducing psychosis in users. He works his way through the arithmetic of a college’s population and concludes that among students smoking marijuana with a “THC” concentration of 20%, the odds of marijuana-induced psychosis “could be as high as 1in 100.” Driving a car is much safer.

Cockburn’s solution is total legalization so that only low-dose marijuana is sold and that is regulated, inspected, taxed. That is not going to happen any time soon. A recent AP-CNBC national poll showed 55% of the public opposed to legalization and only 33% in favor. So, even if the California measure passes, we are stuck with a patchwork system.

Joel Hay, professor of pharmaceutical economics and policy at the University of Southern California, put it this way last winter: The carnage in this country due to alcohol and tobacco use is enormous. Why we would want to increase the use of another product that creates this kind of damage is hard to fathom.”