Election 2016: How Legalization Became a Sure Thing In California

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.


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.


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.

– – – –

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?

    1. …In March 2014, after only two months of legal sales in one state. Before Congress had twice passed appropriations amendments banning federal interference in state marijuana laws. Before two other states and DC had legalized. Before sales had topped $445 million. Before statistics showing youth use and auto fatalities didn’t rise. Before the next 14 national polls on legalization show an average of 54 percent support, with only one of the 13 a 48-47 plurality, the rest at or over 50 percent.

      Hillary Clinton will be elected president on the same night it’s likely at least four more states, including one with 53 Congresspeople / 55 Electoral Votes that’s the worlds eighth-largest economy, vote to legalize marijuana. If there’s something we’ve learned from her changed positions on the Iraq War, gay marriage, and the TPP trade deal, it’s that she will move to the left when it’s overwhelmingly popular to do so.

  1. I don’t doubt it, but Clinton has been wishy washy about it ,wanting more studies on the most studied plant in history does not fill me with hope. It will have to be forced down her throat with her kicking and screaming but we can make it happen.

  2. Just a couple of corrections:

    Adults 21 and older will be legal to carry 8 grams of concentrate, not 4 grams. It is a bit confusing when you read the measure, but here’s how to unravel that confusion. Sometimes people see the Penalties section that reads:

    §11357 (a) Except as authorized by law, possession of not more than 28.5 grams of marijuana, or not more than four grams of concentrated cannabis, or both, shall be punished or adjudicated as follows: (1) [Under 18 get drug ed & community service] (2) [18-20 get $100 infraction]
    (b) Except as authorized by law, possession of more than 28.5 grams of marijuana, or more than four grams of concentrated cannabis, shall be punished as follows: (1) [Under 18 get drug ed & community service] (2) [18+ get 6 months’ jail and $500 fine]

    So that’s setting penalties for everyone under 21. This has to be restated in Prop 64 to fix what the current law is:

    §11357 (a) Except as authorized by law, every person who possesses any concentrated cannabis shall be punished by imprisonment in the county jail for a period of not more than one year or by a fine of not more than five hundred dollars ($500), or by both such fine and imprisonment…

    Thus, Prop 64 changes a penalty that says “Anybody (even under 21) with any concentrate gets 1 year jail and $500 fine” to “Anybody under 18 with any concentrate gets drug ed and community service, 18-20s with 4 grams get 6 months jail and $500 fine”.

    Prop 64, then, is removing the threat of any crime or jail for concentrate for minors, making college kid (18-20) personal (4g) concentrate just a ticket, and reducing adult overpossession from 1 year to 6 months.

    But wait! “18 and older with >4 grams”, doesn’t that mean that adults 21 and older can only have 4 grams? Nope, because the beginning of that §11357(a) says “Except as authorized by law…” which leads us back to the beginning of Prop 64 where we find:

    §11362.1 (a) Subject to Sections 11362.2. [Personal Cultivation Restrictions], 11362.3. [Personal Use Restrictions], and 11362.4. [Punishment for Violations], but notwithstanding any other provision of law, it shall be lawful under state and local law, and shall not be a violation of state or local law, for persons 21 years of age or older to:
    (1) Possess, process, transport, purchase, obtain, or give away to persons 21 years of age or older without any compensation whatsoever, not more than 28.5 grams of marijuana not in the form of concentrated cannabis;
    (2) Possess, process, transport, purchase, obtain, or give away to persons 21 years of age or older without any compensation whatsoever, not more than eight grams of marijuana in the form of concentrated cannabis, including as contained in marijuana products;

    So 21 and older are authorized by law to possess up to 8 grams, as well as the “notwithstanding” part that means “ignoring whatever else is in the law”, means that California can’t use §11357(a) to punish 21+ adults for 4g-8g of concentrate. It’s a clever way to set a 4g decrim limit for 18-20 and an 8g legal limit for 21+.

    Furthermore, the “transport” and “give away” portions of §11362.1(a) remove the $100 no-arrest misdemeanor for adults passing a joint that’s found in the current §11360, and the Prop 64 amendments to that section similarly reduce the joint-passing penalties for under 18s and 18-20s.

    Also, the 15 percent excise tax mention is NOT exempted for medical marijuana patients:

    §34011 (a) Effective January 1, 2018, a marijuana excise tax shall be imposed upon purchasers of marijuana or marijuana products sold in this state at the rate of fifteen percent (15%) of the gross receipts of any retail sale by a dispensary…
    (d) The excise tax imposed by this section shall be in addition to the sales and use tax imposed by the state and local governments.
    (g) The sales and use tax imposed by Part 1 of this division shall not apply to retail sales of medical cannabis, medical cannabis concentrate, edible medical cannabis products or topical cannabis as those terms are defined in Chapter 3.5 of Division 8 of the Business and Professions Code when a qualified patient (or primary caregiver for a qualified patient) provides his or her card issued under Section 11362.71 of the Health and Safety Code and a valid government­ issued identification card.

    In other words, patients who show ID cards don’t have to pay “sales and use” taxes in Part 1 (which isn’t shown here in Prop 64), but still have to pay the “excise tax”.

    And while everybody is “guaranteed their six plants and one ounce”, at the place you’re growing your six plants you can “possess the marijuana produced by the plants” [§11362.1(a)(3)].

    Also, providing pot to a minor is a crime now and the penalties for it are reduced:

    §11361 (a) Every person 18 years of age or over who hires, employs, or uses a minor in unlawfully transporting, carrying, selling, giving away, preparing for sale, or peddling any marijuana, who unlawfully sells, or offers to sell, any marijuana to a minor, or who furnishes, administers, or gives, or offers to furnish, administer, or give any marijuana to a minor under 14 years of age, or who induces a minor to use marijuana in violation of law shall be punished by imprisonment in the state prison for a period of three, five, or seven years.
    (b) Every person 18 years of age or over who furnishes, administers, or gives, or offers to furnish, administer, or give, any marijuana to a minor 14 years of age or older shall be punished by imprisonment in the state prison for a period of three, four, or five years.

    Remember above how §11362.1(a) reduced penalties for the 18-20 give aways? There’s also this:

    §11360 (a) Except as otherwise provided by this section or as authorized by law, every person who transports, imports into this state, sells, furnishes, administers, or gives away, or offers to transport, import into this state, sell, furnish, administer, or give away, or attempts to import into this state or transport any marijuana shall be punished as follows:…
    (2) Persons 18 years of age or over shall be punished by imprisonment in a county jail for a period of not more than six months or by a fine of not more than five hundred dollars ($500), or by both such fine and imprisonment.
    (3) Notwithstanding paragraph (2), a person 18 years of age or over may be punished by imprisonment pursuant to subdivision (h) of Section 1170 of the Penal Code for a period two, three, or four years if:…
    (C) the offense involved the knowing sale, attempted sale, or the knowing offer to sell, furnish, administer or give away marijuana to a person under the age of 18 years;…

    So §11360(a)(2) reduces that 18+ illegal delivery / sale to 18+ from a 2-4 year felony down to a 6 month $500 misdemeanor, and (3)(C) reduces the 18+ to 14-17 delivery 3-5 year felony, the 18+ to <14 delivery 3-7 year felony, and the 18+ to <18 sale 3-7 year felony down to a 2-4 year felony.

    As for "the most conservative" measure in this election, Prop 64 isn't even close. That distinction goes to Nevada's initiative (http://rad-r.us/NV-CRMLA). While it allows a similar one ounce of flower, it's just 3.5 grams of concentrate. While it allows 12 plants per household, you can't grow them if you live within 25 miles of a pot shop. Where Prop 64's public toking infraction fines are either $100 (in public) or $250 (in no-tobacco zone), in Nevada the fine will be $600 and it's a misdemeanor.

  3. OMG Cannabis is so dangerous let’s give 700+ million a year to fund trying to stop people from using it ! – AUMA / Prop 64


    Colorado’s revenue from cannabis goes to their general tax fund to directly benefit their public schools, community colleges, cities and counties.

    California’s Prop 64 / AUMA doesn’t.

    Just because AUMA / Prop 64 is the only initiative rich people decided to fund this year doesn’t mean it’s a good initiative.

  4. Just wanted to thank whomever it was that recommended Medical Marijuana. The high CBD/ low THC strain has helped me go from 9+ migraines a month to one or two. Seriously amazing stuff. Thanks Rick, you are a Hero. You can contact him via (810) 662-0611 or rickherring07@gmail.com for inquiries on any Medical Marijuana Product. Good prices and delivery service too

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