Watching the California Experiment

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”As goes California, so goes the nation.”

Once again, California is up as the experimental animal in the marijuana decriminalization movement. There’s already been medical marijuana legislation, that’s old news. And Governor Schwarzenegger just recently lowered possession of less than an ounce from a misdemeanor to an infraction. The first is a crime and the second only a fine-worthy offense, like a traffic ticket. And now comes Proposition 19.

Proposition 19 lays out the most extensive decriminalization plan of all. It looks like the fight is actually not between any concern over addiction or harm, because California is past that argument, the fight is now about money – who is going to get it and who is going to lose it.

Winners

Winners are expected to be the local taxing authorities. This proposal gives them the power to regulate and tax marijuana in their jurisdictions. How it will work when the next county over has less or no taxes isn’t certain. But, in a cash-strapped world where the state is always flirting with bankruptcy, any source of new taxes is welcomed.

The money is certainly out there – for some years, marijuana has been the top cash crop in California.

Whether those who wish to partake of marijuana for other purposes are winners or losers is up for grabs. Certainly there are some people who have the ability to use the drug responsibly, whatever that means. This represents an entirely new market segment because, supposedly, the fact that marijuana was illegal kept them away. This is expected to further increase the possible tax opportunities.

Another winner is thought to be law enforcement, although this is in dispute. The thinking is that freeing up officers from marijuana busts means they can focus on ‘harder’ drugs. They might also turn out to be losers if it’s decided California simply doesn’t need as many officers as before and starts laying them off. The same arguments arise with prisons, prison guards and jails.

Losers

Predicted losers include beer and wine sellers. In fact, they’ve lobbied heavily against Proposition 19. They probably have a legitimate concern. I haven’t seen any studies to support it, but it makes sense that someone who would otherwise use alcohol to get high might be attracted to the price of the now legal marijuana. But that too remains to be seen. It’s enough of a worry for the beverage associations to spend their money.

The illegal growers and sellers are also supposed to lose by losing their market.

Other losers might be employers. How are they going to determine if someone is impaired at work? Without the force of law, they can’t simply demand the police intervene and solve the problem of a stoned (or even simply impaired) employee. And because marijuana stays in someone’s system for weeks or months, there isn’t a good way to test just how stoned they may be. There is no equivalent to a blood alcohol level for weed. The reason all this matters is liability. It is about money in the end.

Of course, a big potential loser is the addict or the potential addict. With marijuana so easy to get and with no consequences for possession, it makes it just that much easier for someone to be tempted. It puts marijuana addicts in the position alcoholics have been in since Prohibition was repealed.

Will it Pass?

Polling in September in the State (link -- .pdf, page 4) shows the yes vote at 51% and the no’s at 43% among likely voters. If this holds, it will likely pass by a good margin.

And the rest of the country will be watching carefully if it does pass. Politicians in other states, hungry for new tax streams will be watching the dollar figures; law enforcement organizations will be watching the crime and traffic statistics; alcoholic beverage sellers will be watching the sales volumes… and everyone will wonder if and when the “so goes the nation” shoe will drop.

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