A dopey measure on marijuana

Capitol Journal

The state Capitol is pathetically dysfunctional. One in eight workers statewide is out of a job. UC Berkeley is arrogantly eliminating baseball.

Things are not going well in California.

What can we do?

Well, if Proposition 19 passes on the Nov. 2 ballot, we can all go get stoned. Legally. Buy some joints down at the corner convenience store.

We can become an even bigger laughingstock to the nation.

It was tempting here to write again about the Capitol’s broken governing system that resulted in another bumbling, bleary-eyed, all-night legislative session needed to pass a 100-day-late budget Friday.


But there’s little left to say about this never-ending clown act. Besides, the adopted budget wasn’t all that important. The hard decisions were left for the next governor and Legislature.

Prop. 19 is more interesting and would have a greater long-term impact on California.

The ballot initiative, bankrolled primarily by a prospering entrepreneur of the pot industry, would permit local governments to regulate and tax commercial cultivation and retail sales of marijuana. And it would permit all Californians at least 21 to grow and possess their own weed for personal use.

Such activity, however, still would violate federal law.

In California, selling marijuana for non-medicinal use is a felony. But possessing less than one ounce — about a sandwich baggie-full — is a low misdemeanor punishable by a fine.

Starting Jan. 1, pot smoking will be even less of a state crime. Under a bill recently signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, it will be deemed an infraction, equivalent to a traffic ticket.

Since 1996, when voters approved Prop. 215, it has been legal in California to grow, sell and smoke marijuana for medical purposes, subject to local control. A “patient” needs only a doctor’s “recommendation,” not a prescription.

Merely a quarter of buyers at medicinal pot shops “are truly in need of it because of a medical condition,” says attorney George Mull, president of the California Cannabis Assn., which advocates “reasonable regulation of medical marijuana.”


Mull opposes Prop. 19, illustrating a split in the marijuana community.

“We think it’s kind of goofy to jump ahead to recreational marijuana when we haven’t done medical marijuana correctly yet,” he says.

“We’d like to see medical marijuana truly made legal. In many areas, you can grow your own but can’t sell it. There should be a more incremental approach.”

He adds that “this whole [initiative] was set up by folks trying to make millions.”

That would be primarily Richard Lee of Oakland, founder of “Oaksterdam University,” the nation’s first marijuana trade school. Lee says his medical marijuana dispensary, nursery and other pot-related merchandising generate up to $7 million a year, according to a Times article by reporter John Hoeffel.

Lee is in a good position to make a bundle off marijuana legalization. So far, he has spent $1.5 million to qualify Prop. 19 for the ballot and pitch it to voters.

The pitch basically is this: Cops currently waste many millions chasing down nonviolent pot smokers. There’s a $14-billion industry that could be taxed to help the debt-ridden state. And marijuana “prohibition” has created killer drug cartels.

Opponents counter that relatively little, in fact, is spent nabbing or prosecuting marijuana users. “There’s nobody in jail for possessing less than one ounce of marijuana,” says Fontana Police Chief Rod Jones.

State prison data show that fewer than 1% of inmates have been sentenced for marijuana crimes of any kind.

“Long, long ago in the John Lennon era, people got thrown in prison for possession of marijuana,” says Cassandra Hockenson, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. “Not so much today.”

Opponents also point out that there’s no marijuana regulation or taxing provisions in the initiative. That would be left to local governments, and there’d be a confusing hodgepodge from county to county.

But Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco) last week introduced legislation to create a uniform statewide regulatory system. “If 19 passes, we’ll be ready,” he asserts.

Prop. 19 supporters are united behind the belief that what someone inhales or ingests in the form of muffins or brownies ought to be his business only.

“Let the criminal justice system control people’s actions, but not what they put into their bodies,” says James P. Gray, a retired Orange County Superior Court judge, who describes himself as a libertarian “flame thrower.”

And he adds: “Along those lines, it makes sense to me to strictly regulate and control heroin. It makes as much sense to put Robert Downey Jr. in jail for heroin addiction as it would have putting Betty Ford in jail for alcohol addiction.”

Gray has long advocated the legalization of all drugs. “But let’s start with marijuana,” he says. “Each drug should be decided on its own merit.”

Such talk scares Dr. David Sack, a psychiatrist and chief executive of Promises celebrity rehab centers. “Drugs cause tremendous hardships to children and families, and the risk of addiction goes up with exposure,” he says.

“Marijuana is clearly addictive, impairs judgment and increases the risk of motor vehicle accidents and interferes with brain development, particularly in adolescents….

“The biggest concern I have is that legalization will create a societal validation that marijuana is not harmful.”

Legalizing “recreational” dope would create yet another problem for the state.

Prop. 19 is a crackpot idea. Therefore, California voters just might pass it.