Ballot on My Mind

There’s an initiative[1. For readers not familiar with the initiative and referendum system used in California elections, the thumbnail version is that members of the public can draft proposed initiatives and circulate a petition. If they get enough signatures, the initiative ends up on the ballot. This system is lauded by some people as a ‘power to the people’ thing and criticised by others because means we end up with things like Proposition 8, the controversial 2008 ballot proposition banning gay marriage.] on the California ballot this fall that is attracting a lot of attention. I see it coming up more and more in the news and I suspect that this is going to ramp up in the months leading to the election. The California Marijuana Legalisation Initiative asks voters, as you might guess from the name, whether or not they want to legalise marijuana in the State of California.

Specifically, if the initiative passes, people over 21 will be able to cultivate, transport, and possess marijuana for personal use. This is full legalisation, for recreational or medical use; if you are over 21, you will be allowed to carry, use, and grow marijuana. There are some limitations, specifically that people would need to use it in private, not on school grounds, and not around minors[2. I’m not exactly sure how they plan to enforce this last.]. In addition to legalising, a tax framework would also be set up to tax marijuana sales.

Personally, I am an advocate for legalisation. There are a lot of reasons for it, perhaps primary of which is that I don’t give a fuck about what people do on their own time and I’m not interested in keeping sumptuary laws on the books. I don’t really see any reason to keep marijuana illegal, I don’t see any reason to make it a controlled substance, and I don’t care whether people are using it for medical or recreational use[3. One of the key aspects of the debate has been an argument about how to approach legalisation. Some people promote a focus on medical, as seen with Proposition 215, the law that allows people to cultivate, transport, and use marijuana for medical use, while others propose simple and clear legalisation, period.]. Marijuana is highly stigmatised and there are some interesting social and cultural attitudes to explore there.

There are also huge environmental harms associated with the industry as it stands now. Indoor operations such up vast amounts of water and electricity. People dump fertilizers directly into the sewer system. Outdoors, pesticides and herbicides are applied in sensitive areas. Growers end up in places like state parks because they don’t want to imperil their own land[4. Under seizure laws, if a grow operation is busted, the government can also seize the property and sell it at auction.]. They litter. They trample endangered plants. If cultivation was legal, people could do it openly in places that are appropriate, and if they’re growing indoors, they could have operations that are responsibly managed.

As an initiative for legalisation, there’s a lot to recommend it. It’s clear, it’s pretty simple, it sets up a framework for taxation, and I think it’s rather brilliantly timed and structured. The state is losing out on a lot of tax revenues by refusing to regulate marijuana sales, and we could really use some money right now. That taxation section is what worries a lot of small growers, of course, because they are concerned that they will be regulated out of business. And many have been enjoying their tax-free incomes for some time now, and are not looking forward to forking over to the government like, well, like the rest of us.

But there are some questions to ask about this initiative.

Living in a region of California that’s pretty progressive and was among the first to try and liberalise the law in relation to marijuana, I’ve noticed something interesting: In the last few years, we’ve moved in the direction of more regulation. Some of the early things that happened in Mendocino County have effectively been reversed as people respond to decriminalisation out in the wild. In Fort Bragg, for example, we now specifically ban indoor grow operations because it became such a problem in town. Likewise, some law enforcement have changed their stance, moving from the direction of ‘I have better things to do than chase a few stoners’ to pushing for more structured laws so they can enforce.

Furthermore, no matter how much we legalise it in California, it’s still illegal Federally. Federal agents can and will enforce the federal law and they can oblige California law enforcement to assist. This is a classic example of a conflict between state and federal law. Now, there’s an argument to be made for legalising things state by state to pressure Congress into changing Federal law. That same argument is behind initiatives to legalise gay marriage across this great nation of ours. But the fact of the matter is that this could set up conflicts for law enforcement in California.

Here’s the thing: Law enforcement raids are dangerous. Especially with Federal agents who are harbouring resentments. I could see some legitimate safety concerns about neighborhoods where cultivation is taking place, not because of fears about scary marijuana smokers, but because of worries about scary Federal agents with guns blazing. I’m not sure I would want to live next to a facility that is likely to be raided by people with big guns, personally. Double that if I had young children.

It will be interesting to see what happens. I think that some curious things may occur during this election. Something important for the rest of the country to remember, so that they aren’t shocked like they were in 2008 over Proposition 8, is that California is not liberal. It is a very large state and it is mostly conservative. Yes, the areas of major population density (the Bay Area, Los Angeles) are liberal, but conservative voters tend to turn out in larger numbers, spend more money, and spend more time pounding the pavement with fearmongering, which means that liberalising legislation, and liberal candidates, don’t always fare well here.