The California Marijuana Mess

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There’s some truth to the phrase, “As goes California, so goes the nation.” As a single state, California has the eighth largest economy in the world, leading Canada, Russia, Spain and Australia. The population is a whopping 37.6 million. This makes it an interesting test case for new political and social ideas, among them medical marijuana laws.

Now, in an analysis published in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, serious problems have emerged.

Leading the list is the conflict between federal and state laws on how marijuana is to be treated legally by each system, but that isn’t the only frustration felt by citizens in the state. And arguably, the genesis for the difficulties springs from democracy itself – the first laws decriminalizing marijuana were enacted by referendum in 1996, without the complete legislative process. The will of the people was made plain, but the laws that resulted were a poor fit with existing law. And next year, that same mechanism has two different groups trying to modify what has resulted. The first wants to tax and regulate marijuana more strictly and the second, a polar opposite, seeks to make marijuana completely unrestricted.

Attempts to cut through the confusion have failed. When Governor Jerry Brown tried to reign in the contradictory laws (with police and prosecutors unsure of what they could and could not enforce) in 2008, it simply allowed almost any use to be labeled “medical” and protected at the state level.

According to the article: “The result is that it's hard to find pot that isn't for “medical” purposes. Firefighters find medical pot growing in burned-out garages and back rooms of rental houses. Cops find medical pot stuffed into the trunks of rental cars making a run through Sonoma County from the marijuana farms of the North Coast to the lucrative markets of Los Angeles. Narcotics agents find medical pot being trimmed and packaged by workers making $10 an hour in rural barns and industrial park warehouses. Parents find medical pot in the backpacks of their teen-age children.

Marijuana doesn’t come with a label or a serial number. The same plant could, presumably, be either legal or illegal, depending on who was holding it at the time. And sales have become big business for licensed and unlicensed entities. This is where the real issues reside – how to get a piece of the pie into government hands. Interestingly, even though dispensaries are illegal under federal law, they are still subject to IRS regulation and have to pay taxes on income. The result is that many are incorporated as non-profits, although the legality of that designation is also under dispute.

And the final troubling item is that, at the end of the day, real people are getting arrested and thrown into prison. At least some of these folks thought they were operating within the bounds of the law. There’s a real mess here – how to obey a set of laws that no one really understands?

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