Californians are almost certainly going to vote in 2016 on a ballot measure to legalize marijuana for adult recreational use. And according to the most recent polls, a majority of voters now support that goal.
But general, theoretical support may not be enough. If legalization proponents are serious about passing a ballot initiative, they'd better be sure they put forward a comprehensive, well-thought-out proposal that addresses the complex legal, societal and safety issues involved.
They'd do well to learn from earlier, half-baked marijuana measures that were either wisely rejected by the voters (such as 2010's Proposition 19, which would have legalized the drug) or were passed, but were so poorly drafted as to cause years of confusion (such as Proposition 215, which allowed the use of medical marijuana).
To its credit, the most organized and well-funded group, ReformCA, has spent more than a year talking to both the medical marijuana industry and regulators about what a responsible ballot measure should include. It's important that even critics of legalization, including representatives of law enforcement, are already part of the discussion, because it is difficult to fix unforeseen problems after a ballot measure has passed. And proponents of legalization can't rely on the Legislature to work out the details of implementation. It's been nearly 20 years since voters passed Proposition 215, and the state still hasn't adopted comprehensive rules for the cultivation, transportation and distribution of medical marijuana. In order to be effective, the next ballot initiative will need to create a sensible regulatory and taxing scheme from scratch.
A nongovernmental commission on marijuana policy, led by Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and the American Civil Liberties Union, released a report last week focused on three areas that need further analysis. Those include: how to keep children from getting marijuana and what are appropriate noncriminal penalties for youth possession; how to protect public safety, including keeping marijuana-impaired drivers off the road; and how to set an appropriate cannabis tax so the state earns enough revenue to pay for enforcement and education, but not so high that the state encourages a black market industry. And these three issues are by no means the only outstanding ones.
The Times won't take a position on a 2016 marijuana initiative until the ballot language has been released. This page opposed both Proposition 215 and Proposition 19.
It is important to remember that even if a legalization initiative were to pass, marijuana would still be illegal under federal law. It might be politically complicated for the next president — whether Republican or Democrat — to start enforcing prohibition laws after the Obama administration has essentially allowed states to legalize pot. But advocates shouldn't assume that it won't happen. There could be all sorts of complications as California moves forward; that's why it's important to proceed cautiously and carefully.