November 3rd, 2016
On November 8—this coming Tuesday—Californians will vote on Proposition 64 and whether to legalize cannabis for adult use. California first legalized medical marijuana in 1996 and has had a vast and complex grey market ever since, but full legalization will be an undeniable improvement over the status quo and will benefit countless Californians.
Purely in terms of size, it will be the most important legalization decision yet: A yes vote in this state of nearly 40 million people will, by itself, more than double the number of Americans currently living in places where marijuana is legal.
Prop. 64 offers an outstanding framework to take the state forward—and given California’s outsize influence, it could well point the way for many other states to follow.
Here are seven key features.
1. It Drives a Range of Vital Social and Criminal Justice Reforms
Prop. 64 legalizes possession and cultivation of cannabis, and reduces every marijuana felony to a misdemeanor or completely legal (except sales to minors under 18). Having a felony record can preclude someone from finding employment, education, adequate housing, and more.
Prop. 64’s re-sentencing provisions are retroactive, meaning anyone currently serving time for an offense that would no longer be illegal would be eligible to apply for re-sentencing or early release, and anyone who has already completed his or her sentence could have the conviction dismissed and sealed. Prop. 64 may also reduce thousands of deportations through decreasing immigrants’ contact with law enforcement.
Under Prop. 64, legal marijuana cannot be justification for a detention, search or arrest, and legal marijuana products are not considered contraband or subject to seizure by law enforcement. This is huge. Working at a criminal defense law office, I’ve seen how frequently police justify searches based on the sight of contraband or odor of cannabis.
Additionally, the majority of people who are arrested and convicted for marijuana-related offenses are people of color, whereas studies have shown that most medical cannabis patients are white—so the current model disproportionately protects one demographic while penalizing another.
Prop. 64 would be a giant step towards ending many injustices.
2. It Positively Impacts Youth
Prop. 64 also helps end the “school-to-prison pipeline” by setting out separate penalties for youth, including drug education courses and community service, rather than charging them as adults. Minors could only be charged with infractions for cannabis-related offenses; there would no longer be any threat of incarceration.
Having a drug conviction can prevent young people from receiving financial aid, obtaining housing, and have other negative consequences. Rather than making it harder for youth to get an education and create a successful future, we should be helping them achieve these goals. We can start by passing this measure.
3. It Protects Patients and Consumers
Prop. 64 does not overrule Prop. 215, which in 1996 laid out possession limits and affirmative defenses for medical cannabis patients. Prop. 64 also protects patients’ right to grow their own cannabis by specifically preventing cities and counties from banning indoor cultivation—currently, some places in California have banned both outdoor and indoor cultivation, leaving some patients with no way to legally grow their own.
Prop. 64 also includes privacy protections for patients’ medical information, and will help keep families together since the status or conduct of a qualified patient cannot be used to justify terminating parental or custodial rights.
4. It Helps Small Businesses and Workers
Opponents of Prop. 64 claim it will pave the way for corporate monopolies run by millionaires, but nothing in the substance of the initiative displays a preference for large operators.
The license types in Prop. 64 were primarily based on the license types in MCRSA, a set of medical marijuana bills implemented by the legislature in 2015. Large-scale cultivation licenses will not be issued until 2023, giving smaller growers a head start to establish their business. The licensing fee structure is scaled, so small businesses will pay less.
Additionally, there are protections built in to Prop. 64 to prevent monopolies and unreasonable restraints on competition.
5. It Protects the Environment
Prop. 64 requires that businesses receive environmental inspections in order to obtain a license, to ensure that licensees are not degrading the natural environment and are complying with all state and local environmental laws.
Cultivators will need to prove a legal right to use their water source, which will reduce the number of bad actors who divert water away from those who need it and will help protect fish and wildlife. Additionally, revenue from the taxes collected will go towards offsetting environmental harm caused by illegal cannabis cultivation and activity.
Prop. 64 also legalizes the production of industrial hemp, which can be used for a multitude of purposes, such as food, fuel, paper and even eco-friendly building material.
6. It Funds Essential Services and Research
The tax revenue collected by the state under Prop. 64 will go into a special California Marijuana Tax Fund, which can only be used for specific purposes related to the Act, and will not be mixed with the General Fund, which the state can use for anything.
Some of the programs that will receive tax revenue from the California Marijuana Tax Fund include scientific research on the medicinal effects of cannabis; research on the public health, safety, and economic impacts of legalization; youth-oriented substance use and prevention courses; environmental restoration efforts; community reinvestment grant programs to support low-income communities most harmed by state and federal drug laws; and more.
7. It May Not Be Perfect, But It’s a Massive Improvement—And It Can Be Further Improved
Some people argue that Prop. 64 would be nearly impossible to amend since it is a voter initiative. This is simply not true. Article II, Section 10(c) of the California Constitution states:
“[t]he Legislature…may amend or repeal an initiative statute by another statute that becomes effective only when approved by the electors unless the initiative statute permits amendment or repeal without their approval.”
Section 10 of Prop. 64 says it can be amended by a majority or two-thirds vote of the legislature, depending on the section, without voter approval. Also, the legislature can only decrease, not increase, the penalties.
Prop. 64 is a massive improvement over prohibition, and meets the federal directive for a highly, rather than loosely, regulated system for cannabis. From allowing retroactive re-sentencing to providing millions in much-needed tax revenue, the initiative contains something for everyone, reflecting the diversity of its supporters and the many possibilities of this healing plant.
We now have the chance to truly legalize cannabis, and the rest of the country is watching. Let’s get it right, California!
Lauren Mendelsohn, JD, is the chair of the board of directors for Students for Sensible Drug Policy and a graduate of the University of California, Irvine School of Law.