When it comes to policy and social change, California often leads. We try new ways of tackling issues, enabling other states to see the results and then decide whether to follow, stay put or branch out on their own.
Of late, California has carried the flag forward on climate change, green energy and family leave. Our causes haven’t always been liberal, either. The Golden State was among the early adopters of three-strikes criminal sentencing laws in the 1990s.
But California should wait on legalizing marijuana for recreational use. Yes, polls show that Proposition 64 is favored by voters, especially millennials. Our recommendation is that people young and old dig deeper into this slick, well-funded initiative – and then vote “no” on their Nov. 8 ballot.
Our opposition is based on concerns about the measure’s timing and its potential public health consequences. There hasn’t been sufficient research into the long-terms health effects of using marijuana. What little we do know isn’t good. Marijuana harms developing brains. And for people predisposed to schizophrenia, the drug may trigger its onset and intensify symptoms.
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There also is hypocrisy in encouraging voters to normalize one drug, when the nation is in the midst of an opioid epidemic, and a national ad campaign exhorts parents to lock up their prescription pills so kids cannot find them.
Backers contend Proposition 64 is about civil liberties. Nonsense. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation reports not a single person is in state prison today because of marijuana possession. That’s as it should be. Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed legislation decriminalizing marijuana possession in 2010. And, after years of inaction, the Legislature last year approved detailed regulations for medical marijuana. No one with a medical marijuana card risks so much as a ticket.
Proposition 64 is more about business than social justice. The initiative contains some protections, would generate $1 billion a year in taxes, imposes some marketing restrictions, and would require testing of the product. It also has many holes.
One involves driving. We’re regularly cautioned against texting and driving. Alcohol is the primary cause of more than 500 deaths on the roads a year in California. Stoned motorists pose a hazard, too. Proposition 64 would use revenue generated by new taxes to develop a standard for driving under the influence of cannabis. Instead, a standard should be in place before the drug is fully legalized.
Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, the initiative’s main promoter, repeatedly says he has no desire to create a new California Gold Rush. But initiatives are the ultimate tool of moneyed interests. Shaped by their lawyers and consultants, the complex 62-page initiative would help foster an industry that would retain lobbyists and lawyers molding regulations to their liking. The goal of marijuana entrepreneurs is to expand their market, not constrict it.
One million-dollar donor is Weedmaps, a startup whose former CEO, Justin Hartfield, told The Wall Street Journal that he envisioned becoming the Philip Morris of the marijuana business, a reference to the world’s largest cigarette maker. That ought to give any student of California politics pause, given the tobacco industry’s clout in the Capitol.
Anti-tobacco experts who have studied Proposition 64 say it lacks provisions that would allow for the sorts of successful educational efforts developed by California public health authorities to dissuade people, particularly youths, from smoking tobacco.
Instead, the regulatory scheme envisioned by Proposition 64 is more akin to the liquor business. While alcohol is regulated and not legally sold to minors, it’s also a heavily promoted, advertised and normalized product. The same would happen with legalized marijuana.
Public health aside, there’s the question of timing. Information from states that have legalized marijuana is preliminary. Far more would be known and could be used to inform Californians’ collective decision about legalization in the years ahead.
A March report prepared by the Colorado Department of Public Safety, the most comprehensive so far, offers clues about the implications of legalization, and gives causes for concern.
For example, edible cannabis is often marketed like candy. Between 2010 and 2013, hospitalization in Colorado for drugs including marijuana was 1,440 per 100,000 people. From 2014 through June 2015, after full legalization, that number had grown to 2,413 per 100,000. The Rocky Mountain Poison and Drug Center reported marijuana poisoning is up among children age 8 and younger, and among kids 9 to 17, suggesting adults are leaving their edible cannabis lying around.
In Colorado in 2013, before legalization took full effect, 8.1 percent of drivers in fatal car crashes who were tested had cannabis in their system. In 2015, that had percentage increased to 12.4 percent, or 68, the Colorado Department of Transportation reports.
The time might come when full legalization makes sense. But once approved, laws adopted by initiative are all but impossible to roll back without going back to the voters. For all the spin by backers about how carefully they wrote Proposition 64, the initiative is not fully baked. Or maybe it’s cooked just right for the guys and gals who are promoting it.