When you wake up three weeks from today, possession, cultivation, and transportation of marijuana for adults’ personal use will either be legal in California—or not. The polls are close for Proposition 19, the “Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis Act of 2010.” Nearly a dozen cities have initiatives on their own ballots allowing them to tax marijuana if it passes (including the city of Richmond, where I live). Prop 19 has been endorsed by a stellar group including former and current elected officials, police chiefs, a former U.S. Attorney General, unions, religious groups, and the California state branches of the NAACP, LULAC, and the ACLU. All of this suggests that legalization is imminent, if not at this election, surely soon.
Californians believe in direct democracy. Our state constitution enables three forms of ballot proposition, whereby election-day votes decide matters of policy or finance. Constitutional amendments adopted by the State Legislature are subject to majority approval through the “mandatory referendum.” Existing laws can be vetoed by majority vote, called a “petition referendum” or “people’s veto.” And “initiatives”—the most common type of referendum—may be added to the ballot if the sponsors obtain the requisite number of registered voters’ signatures, and are passed if they obtain a majority of votes cast.
Over the years, a great many stupid policies have been enacted due to the intrinsic flaws of this process: extremely complex propositions are reduced to yes or no questions, and in the nature of our debased campaign system, absurd political advertisements stand in for the careful debate such issues of public moment ought to receive.
But this is not one of them. For me, this issue is clear: legalizing a plant far less pernicious in its effects than alcohol will help to stem the growth of Incarceration Nation, add to public revenues, and advance public safety in ways that are described with admirable concision by the Yes on Prop 19 campaign:
Today, hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars are wasted enforcing the failed prohibition of cannabis (also known as marijuana). Currently, cannabis is easier for kids to get than alcohol. Prohibition has created a violent criminal market run by international drug cartels. Police waste valuable resources targeting non-violent cannabis consumers, while thousands of violent crimes go unsolved. And there is $14 billion in marijuana sales every year in California, but our debt-ridden state sees none of the revenue that would come from controlling and taxing it. Cannabis prohibition has failed.
I lived for a dozen years in Mendocino County, north of San Francisco, always ahead of the crowd in decriminalization and medical use of marijuana (albeit by fits and starts). So I’ve seen a community and economy in which marijuana cultivation is a widely accepted part of the local scene. Many of my health-practitioner friends support Prop 19 because it will ease the multiplying medical uses of this plant. Many local-government advocates support it because it holds unparalleled promise to introduce new revenue into California’s coffers—just in time, as the state threatens to fail altogether as the result of decades of mismanagement, self-dealing, and official incompetence. Many business people and arts and social service advocates support it, because over the years, growers have poured countless dollars into the local economy and nonprofit sector, a trend that is expanding, according to Tuesday’s New York Times.
The counter-arguments I have heard tend to seize on tangents, rather than go to the heart of the Proposition. Some people worry it will make marijuana more available to kids, but this doesn’t make much sense to me, given that we have a direct parallel in the regulation of alcohol. Presumably teenagers will try to get adults to buy legal pot for them, just as kids in my day lurked hopefully around liquor stores, seeking grown-ups willing to buy us beer. If Prop 19 fails, they’ll do precisely the same thing on the black market, which seems more dangerous, no?
Some growers point out that a legal marijuana trade will be ripe for corporate takeover, and no doubt, they are correct. I hear that prices are already dropping in anticipation of that prospect, with one result being that small-scale cultivation and trade will not support as many growers as formerly. But who knows the future? I think it highly likely that as Kraft is to cheese and Gallo is to wine, Johnson & Johnson and other big pharma companies will be to marijuana, leaving the same room for the development of high-quality artisanal products as exists in the food and wine industries.
As with all referenda, sections may be inadequately conceived or written, and of course, the detailed implications of a yes or no vote can only be learned from experience. Some medical marijuana growers have put forward arguments in opposition.
But for me, the larger public policy implications far outweigh these niche issues: nearly 80,000 Californians were arrested for marijuana offenses in 2009, more than 60,000 of them for misdemeanor possession. We know the financial and personal cost of prohibition from our national experiment with banning alcohol in the 1920s, fueling a huge black market and violent criminality. I’d like to think we may finally be able to learn from experience, instead of merely repeating it.
It’s been very hot here, one of those October blasts that California exhales to remind us whose house it is. I had a lively discussion today with someone who insisted that JFK would have transformed society if only he had lived (I was dubious). On the way home, I wondered what my early-sixties self would have made of Prop 19: the herald of an Aquarian age, no doubt, which more or less defines youthful optimism. Our expectations of the pace of change were wildly optimistic; yet, things change.
I took my walk at sunset, but there wasn’t much breeze. The Bay was swaddled in that delicious heat-on-water fragrance: it’s hard to describe, but sometimes I catch that same scent on a man as we pass, and wonder at the mystery of we watery beings. I was feeling blue, the sadness of a necessary loss nagging like a stone in my shoe. So I listened to a song that has comforted me for more than forty years “Beside You,” on the album Astral Weeks
Unlike almost any other recording I own, I can tell you the exact day that I acquired Astral Weeks. That album was presented to me as a gift on December 6, 1969, on the way to the Rolling Stones’ famous free concert at Altamont Speedway in the Northern California hills east of the Bay Area. The Hells Angels motorcycle gang was hired to provide security, for which gang members were compensated with $500 worth of beer. During the Rolling Stones’ set, Hells Angels killed a methamphetamine-crazed fan who’d approached the stage waving a revolver. That event was captured for the Maysles Brothers’ documentary, Gimme Shelter.
I wasn’t close to the stage when the deed went down, but in a long day of bad vibes, I’d seen people who were wrecked on jug wine and speed get into countless fights. Altamont was only four months after the vast peace and love-fest of Woodstock, yet, looking around, we all knew that something had changed. When people say the sixties ended there, they mean in part that the ego-dissolving drugs that ushered in the counterculture, chiefly marijuana and psychedelics, were shoved aside in favor of ego-reinforcing drugs like cocaine, alcohol, and amphetamines (not to mention caffeine and sugar, our chief legal addictions). Here it is, then, “Beside You”: You breathe in, you breathe out, you breathe in, you breathe out….