Election May Be a Turning Point for Legal Marijuana
By THOMAS FULLER
OCTOBER 24, 2016
SAN FRANCISCO — To the red-and-blue map of American politics, it may be time to add green. The movement to legalize marijuana, the country’s most popular illicit drug, will take a giant leap on Election Day if California and four other states vote to allow recreational cannabis, as polls suggest they may.
The map of where pot is legal could include the entire West Coast and a block of states reaching from the Pacific to Colorado, raising a stronger challenge to the federal government’s ban on the drug.
In addition to California, Massachusetts and Maine both have legalization initiatives on the ballot next month that seem likely to pass. Arizona and Nevada are also voting on recreational marijuana, with polls showing Nevada voters evenly split.
The passage of recreational marijuana laws in Alaska, Colorado, Oregon and Washington over the past four years may have unlocked the door to eventual federal legalization. But a yes vote in California, which has an economy the size of a large industrial country’s, could blow the door open, experts say.
“If we’re successful, it’s the beginning of the end of the war on marijuana,” said Gavin Newsom, the lieutenant governor of California and a former mayor of San Francisco. “If California moves, it will put more pressure on Mexico and Latin America writ large to reignite a debate on legalization there.”
Legalization puts pot-legal states in direct conflict with the federal government, particularly the Drug Enforcement Administration, which in August defied calls for a softening of regulations on marijuana and reaffirmed its classification as a Schedule 1 drug, the same category as heroin.
Legalization also reinforces a jarring dysfunction between state and federal legal systems over how to handle financial transactions related to marijuana. The federal government, which in 2013 announced it would not prosecute states for legalizing marijuana under certain conditions, accepts taxes from marijuana companies. But the same companies have trouble opening bank accounts or accepting credit cards because of the federal marijuana ban.
The market for both recreational and medicinal marijuana is projected to grow to $22 billion in four years from $7 billion this year if California says yes, according to projections by the Arcview Group, a company that links investors with cannabis companies.
“This is the vote heard round the world,” said Arcview’s chief executive, Troy Dayton. “What we’ve seen before has been tiny compared to what we are going to see in California.”
And yet scholars who have studied these legalization measures say that to a large extent they are very much a shot in the dark, a vast public health experiment that could involve states that hold 23 percent of the United States population — and generate a quarter of the country’s economic output — carried out with relatively little scientific research on the risks. In addition, there are 25 states that already permit medical marijuana.
To hear proponents of legalization in California tell it, a yes vote here would allow the same benefits seen in Colorado — a sharp reduction in drug arrests and a large increase in tax collection — but on a scale many times larger.
After years of resistance, proponents say their long-sought goal is finally within reach.
“My ultimate objective is to get this plant into the hands of every single human being on the planet who needs it — and in my view that’s everybody,” said Steve DeAngelo, the founder of Harborside, a medical marijuana dispensary in Oakland that bustles with clients taking advantage of a medical marijuana law that has been in place for two decades.
“It’s almost a religious spiritual thing,” Mr. DeAngelo said. “Mother Nature gave us this healing plant.”
Obtaining a quarter-ounce of marijuana in San Francisco, once the symbol of the city’s illicit counterculture, would be as easy as ordering a pizza, a manifestation of the partnership between the tech industry and medical marijuana business.
Legalization would also further transform parts of the California countryside into pot-growing farms, and it would legitimize and perhaps help consolidate an industry that once out of the shadows will most likely have the same lobbying power as tobacco and alcohol companies. According to Marijuana Business Daily, a trade publication, the recreational marijuana industry would be larger than the wine industry if use was legalized nationwide.
The enthusiasm for pot legalization — 57 percent of Americans believe it should be legal — has spurred experts to push back against what they say is a widespread public perception that marijuana is a mild drug and less harmful than tobacco or alcohol.
Jennifer Tejada, the chairwoman of the law and legislative committee of the California Police Chiefs Association, says she is not against legalization but argues that the measure is ill thought out.
California should first develop laws to determine when a marijuana user is too impaired to drive, she said.
“It’s like putting a 12-year-old behind the wheel of a car and saying, ‘Go for a drive! Let’s study the safety issues later,’” she said. “It’s ludicrous.”