Given policy shifts by the Obama administration and the passage of marijuana legalization in Colorado and Washington, it was widely expected that California could see a marijuana legalization measure, perhaps as soon as November.
The “Cannabis Policy Reform Act of 2014” entered circulation this week. The key question is whether the backers of this particular measure have the resources to succeed in getting the signatures necessary to put it on the ballot.
The act would “remove all existing civil and criminal penalties for adults 21 years of age or older who cultivate, possess, transport, sell, or use cannabis subject to the provisions of this act, without impacting existing laws proscribing dangerous activities while under the influence of cannabis, or certain conduct that exposes children to cannabis.”
It would prevent the distribution of marijuana to minors as well as prevent proceeds from the sale of marijuana from going to criminal enterprises, gangs and cartels. It would also prohibit the sale to states where it is not legal.
California passed a medical marijuana law back in 1996 and reduced the penalty of marijuana possession to that of an infraction.
At the same time, until the last few years, the federal government has expended huge amounts of resources to prevent even the California Medical Marijuana law from being fully legal and implemented. There have been frequent raids on cannabis clubs and other facilities that furnish marijuana to patients, many of whom are terminal.
However, US policy has changed in the aftermath of the passage of marijuana legalization laws in Colorado and Washington.
Last summer, the Obama administration announced they would not challenge those laws.
In a memo to U.S. attorneys in all 50 states, Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole said the Justice Department is “committed to using its limited investigative and prosecutorial resources to address the most significant threats in the most effective, consistent and rational way.”
The official administration position remains, “The Administration steadfastly opposes legalization of marijuana and other drugs because legalization would increase the availability and use of illicit drugs, and pose significant health and safety risks to all Americans, particularly young people.”
At the same time it is clear that there is a shift afoot.
Back in 2012, Governor Jerry Brown told CNN’s “State of the Union,” “It’s time for the Justice Department to recognize the sovereignty of the states.”
“We already have a fair amount of marijuana use in the guise of medical marijuana,” he said. “There’s abuses in that field.”
However, the governor believes that the states can handle this issue on their own without the interference or intervention by the federal government.
“We are capable of self-governance,” he said pointedly. “We don’t need some federal gendarme to come and tell us what to do. I believe in comity toward the states, that’s a decent respect.”
This year, President Obama gave states a green light to experiment with marijuana regulation. Already, medical marijuana is legal in 20 states.
In January, he made waves when he said, “As has been well documented, I smoked pot as a kid, and I view it as a bad habit and a vice, not very different from the cigarettes that I smoked as a young person up through a big chunk of my adult life. I don’t think it is more dangerous than alcohol.”
He would add that it is less damaging “in terms of its impact on the individual consumer.”
“It’s not something I encourage, and I’ve told my daughters I think it’s a bad idea, a waste of time, not very healthy,” he said.
This follows a movement by the Obama administration to reform laws punishing drug users, noting the racial disparity in drug arrests.
“We should not be locking up kids or individual users for long stretches of jail time when some of the folks who are writing those laws have probably done the same thing,” he said.
Recent polls have found for the first time that a majority of Americans support efforts to legalize marijuana. The issue crosses party lines as liberals and libertarian-minded Republicans support the shift.
The proposed law declared that “existing marijuana laws have created a violent, criminal drug market.”
It notes, “Millions of criminal justice and court resources are spent each year enforcing marijuana laws that could otherwise be spent on preventing violent crime.”
“Existing marijuana laws have a disproportionate impact on African-American and Latino communities,” the drafters argue. “Marijuana has been used medicinally to relieve pain and treat medical conditions by thousands of people in California for more than fifteen years.”
Backers believe, “Regulating, controlling, and taxing marijuana like alcohol will save criminal justice resources, reduce violent crime, reduce racial disparities, and generate revenue for California.”
However, it is unclear that the measure will have the backing this time.
Two weeks ago, the Capitol Weekly reported that many drug advocates believe that the 2016 presidential election offers a greater chance for success.
A ballot measure that was pulled was by the Drug Policy Alliance, a well-financed national group that led the successful 1996 campaign to legalize medical marijuana in California.
The Capitol Weekly reported, “Representatives of the group confirmed that they had pulled their initiative, because of the need for more time to consult with elected officials, public health leaders and law enforcement.”
“On Feb. 18, in the wake of that news, prominent marijuana activist and grower Ed Rosenthal announced that he was abandoning his ballot measure this year and joining a growing coalition in support of putting forward a ‘winnable’ initiative in 2016,” they report. “Rosenthal conceded that political jockeying among marijuana advocates had played a part in his decision to enter the fray of measures looking to legalize recreational marijuana in the Golden State, after voters in Washington and Colorado did so in 2012.”
“I didn’t have to get mine on the ballot, I just had to put in enough effort to make it difficult for the (Drug Policy Alliance) to get on the ballot,” Mr. Rosenthal said.
The big push would appear to be for 2016, rather than 2014.
—David M. Greenwald reporting