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The problems with rushing to legalize marijuana for stoner use in California

Californians seem hot to visit a legal pot shop and smoke a joint or munch a weeded brownie. But driving home could be risky.

No one — not even highway patrolmen — knows precisely how stoned a motorist can be before he’s dangerously under the influence of cannabis.

Unlike with liquor, there’s no 0.08% blood alcohol equivalent for marijuana. There’s not even a common Breathalyzer to measure drugged driving. And there’s nothing around the corner.

That’s one problem with rushing to legalize marijuana for stoner use.

Weed marketers have managed to corrupt the language and sell this as “recreational” use, as if getting high was akin to hiking, tennis or soccer.

You sip booze, you’re a social drinker or — if a gulper — a drunk. Puff on cigarettes, you’re a smoker. You’re never a recreationist.

Proposition 64 on the November ballot would legalize marijuana use for anyone 21 and older. And all polls show the initiative winning by a landslide, supported by roughly 60% of voters.

In 2010, a marijuana legalization initiative lost by seven percentage points. But now the older crowd — those 65-plus — is coming around. Many of them were young people taking hits — “recreating” — back in the turbulent ‘60s and ’70s.

“This [modern marijuana] isn’t like the crappy pot you were smoking in college,” anti-Proposition 64 strategist Andrew Acosta reminded me. “This is high-grade stuff they’re putting in candy bars and you’re climbing the wall.”

For the last 20 years, California has had a wink-wink law — the product of another initiative — that permits use of marijuana for medicinal purposes, phony or not. It’s not hard to find a “doctor” who, for a few bucks, will write a cannabis “recommendation.”

Finally, the Legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown stepped up and enacted a bill last year to regulate medical marijuana. But it won’t take full effect until 2018.

You’d think our leaders would advise waiting to see how regulating medicinal pot works out before barreling full blast into legalizing it for every adult. Also, it would be nice to have a marijuana intoxication standard in place before stoners get behind the wheel.

California's been rejecting legalized marijuana for more than a century. Here's why this time is different »

Why the hurry to legalize consumption of another poison? We’ve already got alcohol, which can ruin lives. Tobacco causes cancer. Cannabis? It can mess up the mind. Plenty of research shows that.

Brown hasn’t taken an official position on Proposition 64. But the governor has made it clear he’s not a fan.

“The world’s pretty dangerous, very competitive,” Brown said earlier this year. “I think we need to stay alert. If not 24 hours a day, more than some of the potheads might be able to put together.”

But it’s understandable why this initiative is being pushed so hard.

One of its biggest promoters is Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, the former San Francisco mayor who’s running for governor to replace Brown when he’s termed out in 2018. Newsom apparently thinks he can attract young voters by legalizing weed.

The marijuana industry also sees a new California Gold Rush — or green rush.  Millions of dollars are pouring into the campaign. Hardly anyone is funding the cash-strapped opposition effort.

“It’s a bad initiative being funded by people with dollar signs in their eyes,” says Lauren Michaels, legislative director for the California Police Chiefs Assn., an opponent without money to donate.

“It was crafted by people who see the initiative as an investment plan. There’s nothing wrong with making money, but when you’re making it off an investment plan that’s bad for public health, then we have to look at the societal costs.”

To be fair, Proposition 64 is supported by the California Medical Assn. It and other backers, including Newsom, point out that anyone who wants to toke weed already can — illicitly or not — and it’s better to have some regulation.

Under the initiative, the state would regulate the industry. There’d be a 15% tax on retail sales — which critics contend might not even cover the cost of regulating — and another tax on cultivation.

Users could possess up to an ounce of weed — basically a sandwich baggie’s worth.

The industry ostensibly wouldn’t be permitted to advertise marijuana directly to minors. But really? Teens see essentially the same ad spin that their parents do.

As for no one under 21 being allowed to buy marijuana: Yeah, right! Teens always have been able to get their hands on cigarettes and booze even though they’re underage.

The worst false argument for cannabis legalization is that it will stop the police from jailing potheads. Fact: Potheads don’t get jailed in California, let alone imprisoned.

Possession of up to an ounce in California is an infraction — not even a misdemeanor — and subject to a traffic-type fine. Marijuana use was decriminalized in California back in the ‘70s. Young Gov. Brown signed the bill.

Fewer than 1% of California inmates are in prison on any type of marijuana charge, and it’s usually for major trafficking or illegal growing.

The feds? Unlike California, they still consider marijuana an evil drug. But we can’t do anything about that.

It might be fine to join four other states and the District of Columbia in legalizing pot. But first we should learn more from their experience and be better prepared.

Proposition 64 isn’t quite cooked. But voters seem anxious to bite in anyway.

george.skelton@latimes.com

Follow @LATimesSkelton on Twitter

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