The biggest single blow against the country’s second failed experiment with Prohibition was struck by California voters on Tuesday, who overwhelmingly approved the legalization of recreational cannabis for adults.
With the passage of Prop. 64, California’s Adult Use of Marijuana Act, California becomes the largest state to have struck down state laws banning nonmedical marijuana use from the books.
“A few years ago, folks thought this was not likely to happen,” Lieut. Gov. Gavin Newsom said. “But here we are, the largest state in the union — and California will move forward with taxing and regulating marijuana for adult use.
“And you know why that matters? There are a million people right now, literally a million people, whose lives have profoundly changed.
“This is something that wasn’t highlighted in this campaign, but there a a million folks who have records associated with marijuana who have the opportunity to have their records cleared and have their lives back in equilibrium…. because this state stepped up and said the war on drugs is an abject failure.”
Prop. 64’s elimination of nearly every marijuana-related felony on California’s books takes effect immediately. Possession of up to an ounce of cannabis is now legal for all adults 21 and over, as is the cultivation of up to six plants. Any marijuana grown from those plants is legal to possess.
Possession of more than an ounce is still a misdemeanor, punishable by no more than a $500 fine and/or six months in county jail, and cultivation of more than six plants and possession for sale—for many decades felony crimes—are now also misdemeanors, carrying the same penalties.
Voters have also approved an imminent financial windfall for the state, courtesy of marijuana.
While recreational marijuana stores won’t open until permitted by the Legislature, sales at existing medical marijuana dispensaries are now subject to an additional 15 percent tax, on top of state and local sales taxes.
Aside from the tax issue, the state’s medical-marijuana industry is untouched. Current possession, cultivation, and sales rules for medical cannabis patients vary county by county, and are not affected by Prop. 64.
Adults without a medical recommendation from a physician will have to grow their own or obtain a recommendation in order to purchase cannabis at an existing medical marijuana dispensary.
California joins Alaska, Oregon, Washington, Colorado, and the District of Columbia. Colorado and Washington were the first, voting to legalize in 2012.
But no victory is bigger than this one.
With adults in the nation’s most populous state—and one of the world’s most influential centers of culture and media, as well as one of its most robust economies—now able to use marijuana legally, federal law still outlawing the drug have never been less tenable.
Prop. 64 was California’s second chance at legalization in six years. In stark contrast to 2010, when Prop. 19—an effort funded almost entirely by marijuana advocate Richard Lee, the founder of Oakland cannabis grow school Oaksterdam University—was defeated by five percentage points and opposed by every major politician in the state, Prop. 64 had an enormous financial advantage and near-universal support from the state’s elected officials.
While supporters preached caution and did not celebrate until the end, the result was never seriously in doubt.
Led by tech billionaire Sean Parker and George Soros-backed Drug Policy Alliance, Prop. 64 had nearly $23 million to run its campaign, compared to $1.6 million available to a barely-visible opposition effort.
Polls throughout the year showed support for the measure nearing 60 percent. In addition to Newsom, the measure’s most prominent backer, Prop. 64 was endorsed by the state’s major newspapers—evening the traditionally Republican Los Angeles Times. In the days before the election, even U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the House Minority Leader, said she would vote for Prop. 64.
Prop. 64 is expected to eventually generate more than $1 billion in revenue and more than 100,000 jobs.
The measure drew opposition from an unlikely alliance of law enforcement lobbies—including unions representing the state’s prison guards, police chiefs, and narcotics officers—and some of the same counterculture marijuana advocates they’d spent the last four decades pursuing, though not for all the same reasons.
Police and religious leaders bemoaned greater access to the plant, attempting to stoke fears of marijuana ads pandering the children on TV; the cannabis advocates who opposed Prop. 64 said the measure did not go too far enough, and was too friendly to big business.