May 4th, 2016
At a campaign kick-off in San Fransisco today, backers of a legalization initiative celebrated the fact that they’ve collected enough signatures to get the “Adult Use of Marijuana Act” (AUMA) onto the California ballot this November. Two months before the July 5 deadline, they’ve gathered 600,000 signatures in total—far more than the 365,000 required.
A large group of representatives—from the medical community, law enforcement, environmental protection agencies, parents’ groups, the Drug Policy Alliance, the NAACP, other leading advocacy organizations and members of both the Democrat and Republican parties—took the stage to speak about the act and answer questions. The coalition also includes former Facebook president and billionaire Sean Parker.
Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom (a former mayor of San Fransisco, who’s running as a Democratic candidate for governor in 2018), led the event, announcing that “the War on Drugs is a war on people of color and poor folks” and that whatever California does in November will be a “game-changer” in the national debate. Michael Sutton, former president of the California Fish and Game Commission, also noted the huge state’s tipping-point potential: “What happens in California doesn’t stay in California.”
The measure would allow people over 21 to possess up to an ounce of marijuana, and to cultivate up to six marijuana plants. The new law would impose an infraction and maximum fine of $100 for possession of more than an ounce.
California was the first state to legalize medical marijuana, way back in 1996. In 2011, possession of up to an ounce was decriminalized. However, as Lynne Lyman, DPA’s California state director, notes, California still makes over 13,000 felony arrests every year, with a total of 154,547 marijuana arrests for felonies and misdemeanors between 2010 and 2014. And though black people make up 7 percent of the state’s population, they make up 22 percent and 18 percent of those arrested for felonies and misdemeanors respectively—despite the fact that black Americans use and sell drugs at approximately the same rates as whites.
Lyman tells The Influence that the AUMA will incorporate key lessons from laws in Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Alaska, DC, and Uruguay, and is “consequently the most advanced marijuana legalization measure to date.”
“We’re not doing this lightly,” said Newsom. He described how the authors sought to incorporate many different perspectives into crafting the act, even the voices of those “vehemently opposed to legalization.” As a result, the regulations are “tough.” The speakers emphasized that concern for the safety of children was paramount in crafting the regulations. “This is not about creating a loop-hole rush in California,” said Newsom. “I’m promoting this a father of four kids concerned with drug use and drug abuse.” Many of the speakers focused on the idea that “you do not have to be pro-marijuana to be pro-legalization.” In fact, marijuana use is already “ubiquitous” in the state of California, Newsom said, and the regulations would “protect our our kids and enhance public safety.”
“We hear over and over from our kids that it’s easier to get marijuana than alcohol…I’ve never heard of a drug dealer asking a kid for ID,” he said.
US Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Costa Mesa), a politician who couldn’t be more different from Newsom, flew in for the event to reach across the aisle and stand in support of the measure. In the past, Rohrabacher has said he doesn’t think humans cause global warning, joking that “dinosaur flatulence” might in fact be to blame. He has also proposed a bill called the “No Social Security for Illegal Immigrants Act of 2011.” But standing shoulder-to-shoulder with progressives today, he spoke of his reasons for supporting marijuana legalization. “I can’t think of a better waste of government money than to try to use it to control the private lives of adults,” he said. He compared the current moment to the fall of the Berlin Wall.
AUMA eliminates or reduces most marijuana offenses, only maintaining sales to a minor, transfer across state lines, growing on public lands, and home butane extraction as felonies. In Colorado and Washington, DC, cumulative marijuana arrests rates dropped by over 80 percent and 85 percent respectively in the first year after legalization. If the same occurs in California, it will have a far larger impact in terms of the total number of people spared arrest.
But what about the people whose lives have already been torn apart? AUMA includes measures to begin to repair the damage perpetrated on communities of color through marijuana criminalization.
First, unlike every other state that has legalized medical or recreational marijuana, California’s act would allow those who have been most targeted and hurt by the War on Drugs—those with drug felonies—to have a chance to participate in the legal market. Under AUMA, a prior conviction for possession, possession for sale, sale, manufacturing, transportation, or cultivation of any controlled substance cannot be the sole basis for the denial of a license.
Second, as Tamar Todd, DPA’s director of legal affairs, explained, people with a prior felony that would no longer apply as such under the new law would be able to go to court to “get those records cleared up.” They would then, in theory, no longer be held back in terms of housing, employment and other parts of their lives. People currently incarcerated for an offense that would be changed by the new law would also have an opportunity to go to court to get their sentence reduced or be released.
Third, AUMA would tax all retail marijuana sales at 15 percent, allocating some of the revenues—estimated by the nonpartisan LAO office at potentially up to $1 billion—to repairing the damage of past drug policy and enforcement. Funds will be provided to a Community Reinvestment Fund that will grow to $50 million annually to support “diversion and reentry programs,” focusing on “economic development, education, housing, and legal services in communities disproportionately harmed by drug war policies.” Since communities “disproportionately harmed by drug war policies” are communities of color, this provision could be read as a slightly under-the-radar way of beginning to make some form of reparations.
Other places tax revenue will go to include:
- programs aimed at preventing and treating problematic substance use among youth and families
- comprehensive research on marijuana
- restoration of the environmental damage to California’s public lands and watersheds caused by illegal marijuana growing during a time of drought
- law enforcement, increasing the resources available to fight “serious” crimes
AUMA also currently includes a ban on large cultivator licenses (22,000 sq. ft.), as a way to give the small farmers “a head start” for the first five years so that, as Newsom said: “Big Tobacco doesn’t become Big Marijuana.”
Even though AUMA prohibits the marketing and advertising of marijuana to minors and near schools or youth centers and establishes strict packaging and labeling standards, including warning labels and child-resistant packaging, the proposal is expected to draw opposition from some law enforcement and other groups, and has already been the subject of a critical report by some influential public health researchers. The authors of the report, who are from the UCSF Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education and Philip R. Lee Institute for Health Policy, are mainly concerned that a wealthy and powerful marijuana industry will develop and thwart public health efforts to reduce cannabis use.
This will be the second time in six years that Californians will vote on legalizing marijuana. In 2010, voters rejected Proposition 19 by a vote of 53.5 percent to 46.5 percent. This time, it seems, the backers behind the act have thoughtfully tailored it to appeal to a diverse range of interests, without compromising the values at the heart of drug policy reform.
As Alice Huffman, president of California NAACP, said: “This unusual coalition is going to be the best thing that’s happened to California since sliced bread.”