Sep 212010

California should have a serious debate on whether to legalize marijuana for personal use. If lawmakers won’t confront the issue, it might even be time for a ballot initiative to change the law.

But Proposition 19 is not the right ballot initiative, the Fresno Bee opines in this editorialpicked up from the Sacramento Bee. (Bud’s note: The Fresno Bee avoided parroting the SacBee’s “up in smoke” headline cliche and deleted this sentence from the original: “It (Prop. 19) is so poorly drafted, in fact, that it almost makes you wonder: What were they smoking?” The final product, while still a bunch of hogwash, is improved greatly by those minor edits.)

The measure on the Nov. 2 ballot is full of loopholes and ambiguities that would create a chaotic nightmare for law enforcement, local governments and businesses.

The measure would allow Californians 21 and older to possess up to an ounce of marijuana and grow marijuana on up to 25 square feet of private property. Supporters say it would control and tax marijuana. It would do neither.

Indeed, many of the positives that proponents advertise aren’t actually written into the measure. For instance, they say that legalization would generate a huge financial windfall for the state and local governments by taxing $14 billion in annual illegal sales, plus create thousands of jobs for California’s struggling economy.

But nowhere in the measure is a specific tax proposal. That issue is left entirely to the Legislature and local governments, so there are no guarantees about any pot taxes and whether they would be fair.

Supporters also argue that, like the end of failed prohibition of alcohol, the proposition would free the criminal justice system of the burden of prosecuting marijuana crimes.

But California effectively decriminalized personal marijuana use and possession 34 years ago. People caught with less than an ounce of pot — and not charged with other crimes — typically are fined $100 or less and rarely set foot in a courtroom, much less a jail.

This proposition would not magically end marijuana trafficking or put drug cartels out of business. A study by the respected Rand Corp. concluded that a sizable tax on pot — a bill introduced this year called for $50 per ounce — could create a whole new black market for cheaper drugs.

Another significant defect in the measure is that it grants too much leeway to local governments to allow the possession and cultivation of larger amounts by individuals. A mishmash of rules would inevitably result, only multiplying the mess created by medical marijuana dispensaries that have mushroomed across California.

The laws governing marijuana should be uniform across the state, as they are for alcohol.

The passage of Proposition 19 would also saddle businesses with even more legal murkiness in trying to keep marijuana-impaired employees out of the workplace. The active ingredient in marijuana can stay in the body for weeks, so current widely available tests can’t tell how recently a worker might have inhaled.

The same uncertainty applies to enforcing driving-while-impaired laws. The measure has no definition of what would constitute driving under the influence of marijuana, unlike the 0.08 percent blood-alcohol standard for drunken driving.

If this proposition passes, California would again be a national pioneer — the first state to legalize marijuana for recreational use. But it would put state law in direct conflict with federal law.

The Obama administration, which has taken a hands-off attitude on medicinal marijuana, says legalization is “a non-starter.” Gil Kerlikowske, the national drug czar, told California police chiefs in March that “marijuana use is harmful,” that legalization would increase abuse and that its social costs would outweigh any possible tax revenue.

It’s obvious that society’s attitudes toward marijuana are now much like they are toward alcohol and tobacco. More than 400,000 Californians use marijuana daily, according to the state.

California voters will likely get another chance to have their say on legalization as soon as 2012. It would be shortsighted to support Proposition 19 — a deeply flawed measure that would create many more problems than it could hope to solve — just because it’s the first one to make the ballot.

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