The nation's first experiment with the legal sale of recreational marijuana began Jan. 1 in Colorado, and by all accounts it was pretty mellow. Washington state, where voters legalized marijuana in 2012, will begin permitting pot shops this spring. Alaska may vote on a marijuana ballot measure in August, and advocates are eyeing Oregon, Arizona and Massachusetts next.
California, too, could reconsider legalization as soon as November. Four initiatives to permit, regulate and tax marijuana have been submitted to the state. It's unclear whether advocates have the time, money or will to get them on the 2014 ballot or whether they'll wait for 2016, when there will be a presidential race underway.
Our view is: What's the rush? Other states are experimenting, so why not wait and see what they learn?
Advocates of legalization believe this is their moment because public attitudes toward marijuana have been softening since 2010, when California voters rejected Proposition 19, which would have allowed recreational use. A Field Poll released in December found that 55% of California voters back legalization — the first time there's been clear majority support.
In reality, marijuana is already practically legal in the state. California's medical marijuana law allows pretty much anyone who claims to be sick or in pain to get a prescription and fill it at a storefront dispensary. Plus, the state decriminalized possession of the drug, so even people without a medical marijuana card who are caught carrying less than an ounce are charged with an infraction, the equivalent of a ticket.
One reason to wait is that California didn't do such a good job when it led the nation on medical marijuana. Look at the confusion that continues to surround the medical marijuana industry in the state. Dispensaries are legal in some cities, not in others. Cities pass ordinances regulating them, courts overturn the rules. Eighteen years after voters passed the California Compassionate Use Act, and a decade after the Legislature authorized dispensaries, the regulatory environment is still hazy.
Legalizing recreational use would be even trickier. How should it be regulated, from the field to the storefront to the user? Should cities or counties be allowed to ban marijuana shops? Could cannabis be marketed on billboards or in TV commercials? Could people consume it in public? Could landlords prohibit its use in residences? Could an employer fire an employee for having traces of the drug in his or her system? Should there be warning labels on marijuana products? What about people currently serving time in prison for the sale and distribution of marijuana — should their sentences be reconsidered if it becomes legal? Will the federal government, which considers marijuana use illegal, allow the most populous state to legalize it?
There are also legitimate questions about the potential impact of legalization. Would drug use go up? Would more people become addicted, and what toll would that have on society? Could there be more impaired drivers on the road? Would the state save money if it no longer had to police and prosecute the marijuana industry? Would crime go down? Would drug cartels lose power and profits?
Proponents of legalization should let California sit on the sidelines for at least another year or two while the experiment plays out in Colorado and Washington. Postpone the ballot initiatives to 2016. California does not need to be a leader on legalized marijuana.