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Radical Rant: Fear and Loathing in Sacramento

Russ Belville



In my writing, I am usually reticent to invite any comparison to Dr. Hunter S. Thompson.

Not just as a huge fan with the sense not to compare himself to such a literary giant, but as a recreational drug user with nowhere near Dr. Thompson’s Dionysian appetite, tolerance, and selection of entertaining recreational substances.

So, I apologize for the title, but there were no better words to describe what I just experienced at the California State Capitol.

The Argumento In Sacramento

I was there Wednesday for an event billed as a debate over the merits of California’s Prop 64, the Adult Use of Marijuana Act. Unlike my usual debate appearances against Kevin Sabet and other prohibitionists, however, I’d be facing off against fellow cannabis consumers who oppose this legalization initiative.

I called it “The Argumento in Sacramento.”

I call them “Stoners Against Legalization.”

They don’t take kindly to that moniker.

Joining me on the Yes on 64 side were two other panelists. Dale Schafer is an attorney and medical marijuana patient who was busted with his then-wife, Molly, a breast cancer survivor, in the town of Cool, California. The feds counted up all the state-legal, locally-approved fifteen-plant medical cannabis gardens they’d been harvesting for cancer patients, added them all up over a three-year period (the limit for how long after this kind of crime they can press charges), and since that totaled over 100 plants, Dale and Molly each served five-year mandatory minimum sentences in federal prison.

Also on our side was Sister Kate, dressed in her full powder-blue and white nun’s habit. She’s part of a non-denominational order that helps patients with medical marijuana in California.

I had agreed to appear at the debate because attorney Letitia Pepper was going to be leading the No on 64 side. Pepper is one of the loudest voices stirring up the fear of Prop 64. She’s composed long, convoluted legal theories that she says prove Prop 64 is a “Trojan Horse” designed to kill Prop 215, the California medical marijuana law. She’s been a presence at various Prop 64 functions, handing out her fliers that warn of medical marijuana’s demise for the benefit of nefarious corporate agendas. She’s a well-known gadfly among my California reform colleagues, whose failure to observe rules of decorum at times requires the intervention of law enforcement, whom she then sues for interfering with her First Amendment right to be a boisterous disruptive pain in the ass.

I’ve been unraveling and debunking Letitia’s scaremongering and legal fantasies ever since she used the same tactics against Prop 19 in 2010. I spent all last weekend digesting her online screeds and meticulously researching California Health & Safety Code and Prop 64’s language to disprove her fear mongering. I could not wait to debunk her, live on stage, for the benefit of the voters who might be tricked by her scary predictions and influenced by her law degree.

Too Chicken to Debate “Radical” Russ

It was not to be. As I arrived at the capitol, I found Letitia speaking with the organizer of the event, Shelby Lucero with (All quotes hereafter are remembered as best I can.) Letitia was informing her that she would not be appearing on the panel today, because, “You didn’t respond to my email concerning my problems with how you have set up the agenda.”

Shelby calmly and professionally accepted Letitia’s last-second cancellation. (It’s the second straight debate I’ve shown up to where the opponent is too chicken to face me and cancels at the last moment.) Shelby even allowed Letitia to then set up a table to the right of the dais, replete with her anti-Prop 64 fliers, stickers, and posters.

So our opponents on the No on 64 consisted of Kevin Saunders, a mayoral candidate and longtime medical-marijuana activist, and two other gentlemen, one representing a group that gives free medical marijuana to veterans. That group also supplied about half of the audience that was supporting the No on 64 side. The event was sparsely attended, however, with about 30 people maximum. The balance was probably 2-to-1 on the No on 64 side.

The debate began and immediately the fear kicked in.

Their primary fear is that passing Prop 64 is a trick to end of Prop 215. Fear that legalization means the end of medical marijuana. Fear that marijuana will cost $500 an ounce after legalization. Fear that their group won’t be able to give free weed to vets after legalization. Fear that new crimes are created and minors are being criminalized by legalization. Fear that there will be more marijuana arrests following legalization. Fear that legalization gives the legislature power to repeal the rights granted not just by medical marijuana but by the legalization itself. Fear that all of Prop 64 is an elaborate ruse by the elite 1 percent to seize the cannabis market.

All of these fears and more were articulated by the No on 64 side. All they were missing was any citation of relevant passages of Prop 64 or comparisons to four other legal states that puts these predictions anywhere near the reality most of us inhabit.

Your Fears Are Irrational and Unwarranted

Dale and I are quite familiar with Prop 64 and the current California marijuana laws. We responded to all the fears with calm recitation of the relevant sections of the Act.

No, Prop 215 does not end with Prop 64; in fact, the act contains many sections that either directly state that 64’s regs don’t apply to medical marijuana or improve Prop 215 by adding additional protections and rights.

No, the regulation of medical marijuana you’re lamenting as “the end” is achieved through MCRSA, the new medical marijuana regulations passed by the State last year, not Prop 64.

No, marijuana won’t cost $500 an ounce; the data from all the states that have legalized so far have shown a price crash following legalization. Buds that go for $15 – $18 per gram in California’s medical dispensaries (pre-tax) sell for an average between $7 – $10 (with tax) in ColoradoWashington, and Oregon’s recreational pot shops.

No, Prop 64 allows for non-profits to give away weed—so long as the taxes have been paid on it.

No, the “new crimes” you’re citing are crimes that exist now that Prop 64 either maintains or reduces the penalty for, including reducing the penalties for all marijuana violations by minors from crimes to infractions with no possibility of jail.

No, there is no logical way you can reduce many felonies to misdemeanors, misdemeanors to infractions, and infractions to legal acts and end up with more arrests. Legalization takes from police their ability to claim the smell of pot and begin investigating you. Legalization retires the pot-sniffing K-9 officers. In Colorado, 80 percent of charges for all marijuana crimes (not just the one ounce and six-plant crimes made legal) disappeared following legalization. In Washington, it was a 63 percent decline in arrests, presumably less decline than Colorado because Washington bans personal cannabis cultivation.

No, Prop 64 grants amendment authority by majority vote only for the Section 5 medical marijuana regs (but not rights and limits), Section 6 recreational marijuana regs (but not rights and limits), and to reduce (but not increase) penalties or to increase possession and cultivation limits (essentially, reducing a penalty on a greater amount). A two-thirds majority is required for any other amendment of Prop 64 and it must comport with the Section 3 Purpose and Intent. So their fantasy that Prop 64 would pass, give us possession and grow rights, only to be repealed by the legislature, is incredibly unlikely, since the Purpose and Intent of Prop 64 is to “Permit adults 21 years and older to use, possess, purchase and grow nonmedical marijuana…”

No, the elite one percent can’t even get into the California market with their mega-grows until 2021. The priority in licensing goes to the existing medical marijuana operators, giving them five years to establish their dominance in the marketplace.

Now I Know How Hillary Clinton Feels

All the research and recitation by Dale and I about the statistics from legal states and the text of Prop 64 may as well have been the “wah wah wah” muted trumpet sound of Charlie Brown’s teacher’s voice to the No on 64 side. It was like debating Donald Trump: we could bring all the facts, science, reason, and logic we wanted, they would just insult, deny, deflect, and fear monger.

The loathing kicked in almost every time I would respond to one of their fears with reason backed by evidence. Audience members, usually the vets, would shout over me while I was talking, becoming belligerent enough that law enforcement had to calm them. The two non-Saunders panelists directly insulted me (“carpetbagger”, a joke about my mother, etc.) and impugned my integrity (“He’s paid by MPP to travel the country to confuse people,” “He works for NORML, who pays him to spread lies”); to his credit, Saunders chided his fellow No on 64 panelists for that. (For the record, my last paycheck from NORML was in mid-2012 and I’ve never received a dime from any other reform org or legalization campaign… you don’t have to pay me to fight for my own freedom.)

That I became the focal point for the collective hatred wasn’t surprising, as the other targets were a five-year drug-war POW and a nun. But there was one point during Sister Kate’s turn when one of the vets started screaming about how the Vatican is an autonomous city-state and something about corruption, forcing the exasperated nun to exclaim, “We’re not even Catholic!”

To cap off the absurdity, there was one question that Saunders decided Letitia ought to answer and yielded his time to her. Astonishingly, the moderators allowed the woman who’d canceled at the last moment to jump up on the dais and take the mic. She rewarded them by beginning her statement with “The reason I’m not on the panel here today is because the organizers lied to me about the format,” followed by whatever nonsensical paranoid rambling I’ve since forgotten.

Eventually, one of the No on 64 panelists declared that I was upset because I was losing this debate, to the squeals of delight from the 20-odd Stoners Against Legalization in the audience. In a sense, I was, since this wasn’t a debate so much as an episode of The Jerry Springer Show.

But for any on-the-fence voter with a lick of sense, the incoherent rage and paranoid fear displayed by the No on 64 side will probably move votes into the Yes column. Just as the No on I-502 people back in 2012 convinced many Washingtonians that if those people think it’s awful, there must be something good about it. With Prop 64 standing at 60 percent in recent polls, you can judge my debate performance any way you like.

And just like the No on I-502 people*, I’ll be back in three years after Prop 64 passes to present all the data that confirm their sky-will-fall predictions as the paranoid delusions they are.


* Before you jump into the comments to wail about how I-502 destroyed medical marijuana in Washington, understand that I-502 did nothing to medical marijuana. That’s Senate Bill 5052 that ratcheted down medical marijuana, not the legalization initiative. In fact, California learned from the experience of Washington that a lack of statewide medical marijuana commercial regulations combined with strict recreational regulations leads to that upheaval of medical marijuana, so they passed MCRSA last year before inevitable 2016 legalization would occur.


Previously in Radical Rant: Haters—They’re Just Gonna Hate

For all of Russ Belville’s writing, click here