Is marijuana legalization in California the beginning of the end of the war on weed?

Krystal Xiques smokes marijuana at a November rally in support of Proposition 64 at Sparc Dispensary in San Francisco.
Krystal Xiques smokes marijuana at a November rally in support of Proposition 64 at Sparc Dispensary in San Francisco.
(Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

The door to legalized marijuana in California cracked ajar in 1996, when voters approved the Compassionate Use Act, which allowed doctors to recommend cannabis to their patients.

In November, the door flew open as voters approved Proposition 64 by a wide margin, a measure that legalizes marijuana for adult recreational use and could herald the beginning of the end of the federal government’s misbegotten war on weed.

Really though, for nearly two decades, pot has more or less been available to anyone 18 or older willing to pay for a medical recommendation, which you could get without ever leaving your bedroom. It’s as easy as signing onto a website, paying a few bucks, and Skyping with a physician. Dispensaries sprouted like weeds, bedeviling cities like Los Angeles, which has struggled to develop regulations.


2016 Year in Review: Highlights and heartbreaks »

Yet as easy as it is to procure, marijuana continues to be listed by the federal Drug Enforcement Administration as a Schedule 1 drug, with no accepted medical benefit, officially considered as dangerous as cocaine or heroin. This strains credulity.

No one has ever died from an overdose of marijuana. And medical literature, though research has been limited in this country by the federal ban, is rife with studies showing potentially beneficial uses for the drug.

Pot has been shown to be effective with certain kinds of intractable childhood epilepsy, for helping the nausea of chemotherapy patients, for stimulating the appetites of people with AIDS. It is believed to help with certain kinds of neuropathic pain. Many combat veterans experiencing PTSD use marijuana to alleviate their symptoms. Professional athletes have extolled the benefits of pot over prescription drugs for chronic injuries.

There are some marijuana activists who reject the idea that pot is ever used recreationally. They believe it always has a medical use, even if that use is simple relaxation after a hard day’s work.

In any case, after medical marijuana was legalized, lots of Baby Boomers who had used pot in high school and college, then put it away as adults, started to rediscover it. In some affluent circles, pot has become as commonplace as chardonnay, and carries about as much stigma.

For others — especially teenagers, and low-income African Americans and Latinos — marijuana has continued to function as a gateway drug … to the criminal justice system. For police, the whiff of weed offered an excellent pretext to stop, to search, to run license plates, and to arrest. Under the new law, that is no longer the case.

Unlike previous failed legalization campaigns, there was a lot of money backing Prop. 64 — $22.5 million compared with a paltry $2.1 million for the No on 64 side.

The publicity-shy tech billionaire Sean Parker was a major underwriter, contributing $8.6 million to Yes on 64. Parker, a former Facebook president who founded Napster, has never publicly explained his interest in legalizing pot, though a spokesman has said he does not plan to pursue money-making opportunities in the newly legalized industry. (Opportunities will be rife, though, if you’re not already in the cannabis business, you have missed the ground floor. And possibly the second and third floors, as well.)

Droughts, fires, and the Big One that wasn’t: California’s year in review »

Pro-64 ads focused on persuading parents, who were responsible for sinking the last legalization measure in 2010, that it would keep children safe by banning marijuana ads on TV, requiring child-proof packaging and prohibiting edible forms of cannabis to appeal to kids. (No more medicated Gummy bears.)

Also — and this was key — a huge chunk of the expected proceeds from new taxes and fees associated with legalization (the total could add up to $1 billion a year, according to the state legislative analyst’s office) would be devoted to drug education and after-school programs, which research shows is one of the most effective tools for keeping kids away from drugs and other trouble.

Revenue from cannabis sales, manufacturing and distribution will also be devoted to establishing stoned driving standards, which currently do not exist, and to help the California Highway Patrol train officers to recognize stoned driving in the absence of an objective test like blood alcohol level.

Cities and counties have the right to license and tax pot businesses, or ban them outright — and there is a mad scramble up and down the state by councils and boards of supervisors to figure these things out. State licenses will also be required, and no recreational pot shops will be able to do business until January 2018, when all the regulations are in place. Some places might allow marijuana lounges, but the law forbids pot and liquor from being consumed in the same venue.

A number of changes took place as soon as the election was certified.

As of right now, anyone 21 or older can legally possess, transport or give away up to an ounce of marijuana buds, or eight ounces of concentrate. I heard an attorney say the other day that you could even hand your stash to a police officer and ask him to roll you a few joints without fear of arrest, though I would not recommend it.

Adults also have the right to grow six marijuana plants at home, out of public view. No one, however, has the right to be stoned at work.

Perhaps most important, anyone with a charge, or conviction, for something that is no longer considered a crime under Prop. 64 can ask to have the charges dropped, be released from jail or prison, or ask the court to reduce their sentence or expunge their record.

Drug Policy Alliance, the national drug law reform group that co-sponsored Prop. 64, has estimated that around 2,000 California inmates stand to be affected by the change in the law. Potentially tens of thousands of others who have been arrested or already served time will be able to apply to have their records obliterated.

Nationally, this was a good season for marijuana initiatives.

Along with California, Massachusetts, Nevada and Maine also voted to legalize recreational marijuana, joining Colorado, Oregon, Washington and Alaska. (Arizona rejected a legalization measure.) Also, four other states legalized medical marijuana, bringing the total to 28 states, plus the District of Columbia.

It remains to be seen whether the selection of Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, a marijuana opponent, as U.S. attorney general will herald the start of renewed conflict between the states and the federal government over marijuana.

Activists are pinning their hopes on President-elect Donald Trump. In October 2015, Trump said he believes marijuana legalization should be left to the states.

Click here for a Spanish version of this story

More columns »

For more on politics »

Twitter: @AbcarianLAT




More from Robin Abcarian