Many California voters are high on a ballot initiative that would legalize recreational use of marijuana.
Valley officials are not, George Hostetter writes in the Fresno Bee. They’re wary about problems that Proposition 19 might create — and uncertain how it would work. But even though the measure would become law the day after it passes, local officials are not drafting pot regulations until the voters are heard on Nov. 2.
“There are a lot of questions about how [Prop. 19] would be put into practice,” says Visalia City Attorney Alex Peltzer. “They’re going to be large, statewide questions.”
Even in Oakland, which approved a plan this summer to authorize large-scale industrial pot cultivation, officials say they would consider an immediate moratorium on implementing Prop. 19 if the measure passes.
Arturo Sanchez, assistant to Oakland’s city administrator, says that would give officials time to decide what to do. He says it would probably be wise for all cities to do the same thing.
Ultimately, local officials say, the state would have to get involved. Assembly Member Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, already has introduced a bill that would give the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control the responsibility of setting guidelines for recreational pot sales and consumption.
Prop. 19 — “The Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis Act of 2010” — would allow people 21 and older in California to possess up to 1 ounce of marijuana for personal use.
People could use pot in a nonpublic place such as a house, or in a business licensed for on-site consumption.
People also could grow marijuana in a space of up to 25 square feet for personal use.
Cities and counties could authorize the retail sale of up to one ounce of pot per transaction, and tax the sales.
The latest Field Poll showed 49% of likely voters supporting the measure, with 42% opposed. Other polls show a similar level of support. The margin in favor is modest, but public enthusiasm for decriminalizing possession of an ounce of pot has been relatively stable for months.
Marijuana possession would remain illegal under federal law. It remains to be seen whether passage of Prop. 19 would draw increased federal enforcement in California.
Marijuana in California is big business — some experts estimate annual sales of illegal pot at about $15 billion. High-grade marijuana can go for $450 an ounce.
Still, it’s unclear how much tax revenue might be raised. In 2009, an analysis by the state Board of Equalization estimated the state could reap up to $1.4 billion a year from a tax of $50 per ounce.
But Betty Yee, the board’s chairwoman, says last month that Prop. 19 is too vague to make a similar analysis on projected tax revenues.
It’s also unclear where the retail pot would come from. Would the initiative give rise to commercial farms? Or would a production-and-distribution network spring up based on millions of mini-entrepreneurs, each nurturing his or her 25-square-foot plot?
It’s equally unclear how the ballot measure might change society. Will pot smokers and tobacco smokers be sharing a match as they light up on the smoking patio at the neighborhood tavern?
Will the corner bakery offer pot brownies along with the double-fudge variety?
Will farm towns at the county fair proudly display their world-renowned crop of “buds” along with the pumpkins and white wines?
One of those with questions — and concerns — is Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer, who says the passage of Prop. 19 would mean a surge in marijuana use, especially among youth. This will lead to widespread health and safety problems as more people routinely get high on the drug and come to depend on it, he says.
Dyer points to the successful 1996 medical marijuana initiative as an example of unintended consequences. Fresno has recently seen a series of shootings involving attempted thefts in medical pot groves, including a fatality near Roeding Park.
The recent violence “will pale in comparison to the violence we’ll see if Proposition 19 passes,” he says.
Beyond the potential for crime and violence, Dyer says Prop. 19 fails to answer key questions for law enforcement.
For example, he says, the initiative prohibits someone from driving while high on pot. But, Dyer asks, what’s the legal definition of a legally impaired driver?
It’s also unclear whether consumers would willingly pay a pot tax.
Roger Salazar, spokesman for the No on 19 campaign, says the underground market, unburdened by any tax, may decide to compete on price with legal retailers. After all, Salazar says, these growers and sellers already have long experience at operating outside the law.
Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims also opposes Prop. 19. If it passes, Mims says, she wants counties and cities to band together and prohibit pot sales within their jurisdictions.
Supporters of Prop. 19 are just as convinced of the benefits of legalizing pot. They say its widespread use shows that banning marijuana is no more effective than outlawing alcohol was during Prohibition.
Perhaps more importantly, supporters say, legalization would reduce crime by drying up the black market for marijuana while filling public coffers through taxation.
“Marijuana prohibition hasn’t worked,” says Tom Angell, spokesman for the Yes on 19 campaign.
But should Prop. 19 pass, supporters are counting on the power of money to make the entire state pot-friendly.
Communities that choose not to embrace legalized recreational marijuana “are going to be missing out on all that wonderful tax revenue,” Angell says.
Shannon McCarthy of Fresno says she supports Prop. 19. A medical marijuana patient, she is co-owner of the Hemp Shack, a Tower District business that sells hemp products such as accessories and clothing.
If Prop. 19 passes, McCarthy says, elected officials should let the voters decide whether to authorize recreational use in their jurisdictions.
“But I’m not too hopeful on that,” McCarthy says. “It’s not that [Fresno] is necessarily anti-marijuana. It’s just conservative.”