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Election 2016: How Legalization Became a Sure Thing In California

Chris Roberts

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In America, it’s generally unwise to bet against the billionaires. And in California, the billionaires are behind legalization—in a big way.

The rich and powerful are pouring money into Prop. 64, the ballot measure that would legalize small amounts of cannabis for adults 21 and over in the nation’s most populous state—the home of the biggest and most sophisticated cannabis industry on the planet.

With just over a month to go before Election Day, pro-legalization forces had recorded more than $18 million in campaign contributions, according to the most recent campaign finance records, swamping the paltry $2.4 million raised by the prohibition set.

The Prop. 64 campaign is led by tech billionaire Sean Parker, but also has been getting cash from a nonprofit controlled by billionaire liberal benefactor George Soros. It’s got the money to buy all the airtime it needs to swing undecided voters—of which there aren’t many left.

Sixty percent of likely voters say they’ll vote to legalize, according to recent polling conducted by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California, compared to 36 percent who said they prefer prohibition.

Legalization has support from prominent politicians like Gavin Newsom, California’s telegenic lieutenant governor. The state’s two biggest newspapers—the Los Angeles Times and San Francisco Chronicle—have both told their dwindling readerships to support the measure. Even most of the cranky pot growers in the state’s rural pot-producing regions are on board.

In all, October is looking like a victory lap rather than a desperate dash to the finish for legalization. That’s not a shock, as the state has likely been ready for quite some time.

A legalization effort with a fraction of the funding and near-total opposition from politicians was actually leading in the polls back in 2010 before a series of calamitous events—including an October surprise from the federal Justice Department, which threatened to enforce the Controlled Substances Act “vigorously” if legalization passed, will of the voters be damned—sent it down in defeat, but then only by five percentage points. (Proponents might have waited for the more liberal voting base in the presidential election two years later, when Colorado and Washington both legalized recreational cannabis.)

In the interim, four states and the District of Columbia have legalized small amounts of cannabis for adults. This year, five more states will decide the question. But of them—Arizona, Nevada, Massachusetts, and Maine are the others—California is by far the biggest prize. If California goes legal, more than 10 percent of Americans would live in a place were commercial sales and personal use of cannabis is allowed—more people than the current four legal states combined.

So is it time to celebrate? Is this the end of the beginning of the end of the war on weed in America? The campaign won’t say so, but all signs point to yes.

Speaking of signs, thus far Prop. 64 itself has been remarkably and almost eerily quiet. To date, there have been no big media buys, no campaign rallies, no campaign signs. They haven’t needed to make noise—like with human 4chan thread Donald Trump, the media has been doing legalization’s marketing job on its behalf. And notably, the anti-legalization’s set main arguments—more kids will use pot; controls aren’t tight enough; TV will be flooded with weed ads—aren’t getting any media traction.

Right now, the best metaphor for the pro-Prop. 64 campaign at this point is that it’s a well-conditioned sports car, crawling around a school zone in low gear, its engine ready to rev and snarl like a pack of wildcats in heat—but content instead to obey the speed limit while rolling to Trader Joe’s after picking up the kids at soccer practice.

A billionaire’s plaything at rest… which is by design.

THE BASICS

Prop. 64 would allow adults 21 and over to possess up to an ounce of cannabis at any time—for the dabbers, four grams of concentratesand grow up to six plants in their homes. Commercial sales and production are allowed, as long as state and local licenses are obtained. Sales will be taxed at 15 percent, plus an $9.25 per ounce excise tax on production—plus any local taxes levied by cities and counties.

Cities and counties can ban commercial cultivation and sales, but everybody is guaranteed their six plants and their ounce, provided the six plants are out of public view. Six different state agencies would be responsible for overseeing and regulating every stage of the cannabis supply chain, from ensuring water quality and preventing environmental damage to inspecting testing labs and ensuring quality control for edibles.

Medical marijuana would still exist, and holders of a state-issued medical cannabis patient ID would be exempted from the 15 percent sales tax—which means, in theory, if you must possess more than an ounce and grow more than six plants, you would still be able to do so as a medical cannabis patient.

(Currently, exact possession limits vary from county to county, but the generally understood statewide minimum is up to eight ounces and six plants, with more allowed for caregivers.)

The measure could raise more than $1 billion in sales taxes, according to a state analysis—which means more than $10 billion in sales. Billion. That’s a lot of weed—but considering California supplies as much as 70 percent of the country’s cannabis, according to some estimates, the weed is certainly here and going somewhere. Why not steer it towards licensed businesses who pay taxes?

Prop. 64 does add some new penalties. It would be illegal to provide pot to a minor—including someone aged 19 to 20. And you can only smoke in private homes or areas with a consumption license—you can’t smoke anywhere tobacco smoking is illegal, and in antismoking-happy California, that means a lot of places.

But penalties for possession and sales would all be reduced—currently a felony, sales of cannabis would be a misdemeanor punishable by a maximum of six months in jail and a $500 fine. For perspective, the current penalty for marijuana sales is a felony punishable by up to four years in jail—and there were 13,300 felony marijuana arrests in California in 2014 alone, according to state Department of Justice data. Most penalties under Prop. 64 amount to little more than a traffic ticket.

All this makes Prop. 64 easily “the most conservative” of any of the legalization ballot measures seen in the last four years, says Nate Bradley, executive director of the California Cannabis Industry Association, a marijuana business trade group—and an early endorser of AUMA.

And that’s the idea.

California may have a national reputation as the wacked-out land of fruit and nuts, but the truth is much more boring. Forget Hollywood and forget whatever ridiculous Haight-Ashbury-era vision of San Francisco is dancing in your head.

In reality, California is family sedans and soccer practice, with families fretting about school districts, rent payments, and home values. There are flag-waving, Trump-supporting conservatives in California, but for every pot smoking hipster pedaling a single-speed bicycle to fetch single-origin coffee flying a rainbow flag, there’s a good old boy from Bakersfield wearing a cowboy hat in his pickup truck, so the fringe elements cancel each other out.

Thus, legalization is a battle over the middle, and the middle is leaning towards ending the drug war and emptying overcrowded prisons—even if there aren’t very many people left doing time in state prison for pot.

There are a few things Prop. 64 leaves decided until later. It does not set a threshold for “stoned driving,” setting aside money for the California Highway Patrol to figure that out later.

And while there are still concerns about what increased availability of marijuana will do to society—especially the kids—we’ve already seen what happens in states that have legalized. “The sky hasn’t fallen,” says Nick Smilgys, a Mendocino County-based cannabis entrepreneur.

One of the chief arguments peddled by Prop. 64’s opponents, the most famous of whom is Sen. Dianne Feinstein, is that the airwaves would be full of ads promoting marijuana smoking, like the cigarette smoking ads banned for decades. That appears to be a bunk claim, but it does contain a kernel of truth.

BIG WEED IS COMING–BUT WHOSE BIG WEED?

Current state law is shaped against cannabis conglomerates. Under medical cannabis regulations passed last year, no one single company can own all steps of the supply chain. Under Prop. 64, however, monopolies are allowed…eventually.

For the first few years, priority for state commercial licenses to grow, manufacture, distribute and sell will go to current operators and California residents, but beginning in 2020, it will be open season. And if a single entity wants to do it all—such as newly merged Bayer-Monsanto, for example—there’s nothing to stop them.

“It does great things for criminal and social justice but misses the point on economic justice,” says Hezekiah Allen, executive director of the California Growers Association, which represents the state’s cannabis growers—most of whom, he says, are on board.

That’s a fight for another day.

But a month out, the biggest question mark left is the why—not why cannabis should be legalized, not why the drug war should end, and not why putting America’s favorite illicit substance in the hands of businesspeople and the taxman rather than cartels is a good idea, but why Sean Parker and his merry band of billionaires are here doing it for us.

The motives of everyone else involved are obvious. George Soros and the Drug Policy Alliance have been doing this for decades. It’s Marijuana Policy Project’s literal mission—and the owners of “Google maps for pot” WeedMaps have been up front about why they’re in the game—for money.

But Parker has famously not uttered a single word in public since becoming the main bankroller of what could effectively be the end of the beginning of the end of drug prohibition in America.

So: Weed will be freed by billionaires making it rain, for reasons still unclear but, quite possibly, blatantly commercial. It’s about as grassroots as a private plane—but this appears the only way that it will ever be done.

“I think everyone is a bit frustrated that this is being done to us, instead of by us,” says Allen, “but it is what it is.”

A billionaire’s baby—but one that at least some of us can live with.

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For all of HIGH TIMES’ Election 2016 coverage, click here.

Our report on the legalization fight in ArizonaElection 2016: In Arizona, the Anti-Pot Forces Strike Back!

And check out: 

The Mother of All Marijuana Votes! The Ultimate High Times Election Guide 

Election 2016: Can Marijuana Sweep in All Nine States?

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