Paul Armentano on Coming to Terms with Prop 19

California voters will decide this November on Proposition 19, which seeks to enact the most far-reaching marijuana law reforms anywhere in the United States. The immediate effect of Prop. 19, if passed, would be to provide legal protection to the individual marijuana consumer – that is the estimated 3.3 million Californians who are presently using marijuana for non-medical purposes.

Right now, over 60,000 Californians are prosecuted annually for minor marijuana possession offenses (defined as the possession of one ounce or less of cannabis). Another 20,000 are charged with felony marijuana offenses, which includes offenses such as: growing even a single marijuana plant for non-medical purposes (punishable by up to 36 months in prison), and the sale of any amount of marijuana for nonmedical purposes (punishable by up to four years in prison). Passage of Prop. 19 would make the adult possession (up to an ounce) of cannabis and the cultivation of marijuana (whatever amount may be harvested from a 25 square foot garden) legal. That is, marijuana will no longer per se be defined under state law as illicit contraband that may be legally seized by the full force by law enforcement. According to an assessment by the independent California Legislative Analyst’s Office, passage of this initiative will unburden the courts, save tens millions in taxpayers’ dollars, and end the practice of arresting and prosecuting tens of thousands of Californians each year for consuming, possessing, or growing a substance that is objectively safer than alcohol.

The broader, long-term effect of this initiative will be to allow communities to finally come to terms with the fact that some 10 percent of Californians are already using marijuana, and that it is time that society regulates its sale, production, and distribution in a safe, common sense manner.

Society doesn’t regulate alcohol because it’s innocuous; it does so because the substance alters mood and behavior and should be regulated appropriately — along with controls regarding who can legally produce it, consume it, and under what circumstances its use is lawfully permitted. This same principle ought to apply to cannabis, just as it presently applies to virtually all legal commodities sold on the retail market.

Yet as is apparent by the criticism voiced by some, there is a minority of folks who wish to define cannabis legalization unconventionally. They would prefer that legalization be characterized as the absence of any regulation whatsoever. It’s ironic because, in truth, it is the present criminal prohibition of cannabis that is an unregulated free for all. Conventional legalization is just the opposite.

It is counterintuitive for some critics of Prop. 19 to advocate that marijuana be treated in a ‘legal’ manner, but then at the same time demand that it not be subject to regulation. Bottom line: all legal commodities are regulated in some manner and their retail production or sale is subject to taxation.

For example, cell phones are legal to possess and use in California, but if an individual uses his or her cell phone while driving they are subject to legal sanctions and intervention by law enforcement. Possessing domesticated pets are legal in California and elsewhere, yet certain apartments and home rentals forbid tenants from having pets on the premises. Certain localities have even barred adults from possessing certain pets (e.g., ferrets) all together.

Water is legal, but it’s a product that is highly regulated by the government. The state taxes private individuals’ water use; it can add components like fluoride to the product without voter consent, and it can even sanction the private individual if their water use is greater than that deemed appropriate by the government (in times of water rationing). Yet, even with these rules and regulations, is there any organized outcry from the public claiming that water, pets, or cell phones ‘aren’t really legal?’

Ditto for the subject of taxation. Gasoline is taxed at the state and federal level, and there’s also an excise tax that is passed on to the consumer. Same with alcohol. There are a multitude of taxes that are charged to the consumer on his or her phone bill. How about the taxes tacked on to airline travel, which equal nearly 25 percent of the consumer’s total purchase price? By comparison, the number of specific taxes and regulations sought to be imposed upon marijuana under Prop. 19 are arguably minimal in comparison to the taxes and regulations on many commodities consumers already use every day. In fact, under the proposition, an adult can grow marijuana themselves and avoid any taxes all together.

Is there the possibility that under Prop. 19 some local governments might seek to over-regulate or over-tax certain aspects of the plant’s use or retail distribution? Of course. But ultimately, the question is: what is the preferable policy for adult marijuana use — not the Utopian. Right now the state has the power of a gun to seize an adult’s marijuana — even marijuana that is used in the privacy of one’s home — and to sanction that adult with criminal prosecution and a criminal record if their use is for non-medical purposes.

Under Prop. 19, an individual would no longer face these criminal sanctions for their private activities, as long as their private use was limited to possession and cultivation within certain limits. That is legalization. And in NORML’s opinion, that is a net gain — not a net loss.

Bottom line: California criminally prohibited the possession and use of marijuana in 1913. Nearly 100 years later it is apparent that cannabis is here to stay. It is time to begin to address this reality, and regulate its production, distribution, and use accordingly. Proposition 19 is a first step (but certainly not the final step) in this direction. It’s time to end the legal harassment, discrimination, and criminal prosecution of adult marijuana users in California simply because they are healthy.

Paul Armentano is the Deputy Director of NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) , and is the co-author of the book Marijuana Is Safer: So Why Are We Driving People to Drink?

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