Faced with massive structural budget deficits and a rapidly shrinking tax base, California may find relief in an unlikely place: marijuana. Pot advocates are confident the state’s voters will approve an initiative this November to legalize the drug for recreational use.
On Wednesday afternoon the secretary of state certified the initiative after referendum organizers gathered far more signatures than the required minimum of 433,971. That sets the stage for California voters to once again weigh in on a law via referendum similar to Proposition 8, which modified the state constitution in 2008 to ban gay marriage.
The initiative would change the state’s laws to make it legal for adults over the age of 21 to possess up to an ounce of marijuana and to cultivate up to 25 square feet for personal use. Cities and counties will also have the option to legalize and tax sales; the city of Oakland for example has already passed a 1.8 percent tax on marijuana in anticipation of the prohibition being lifted.
Aaron Smith, California policy director for the Marijuana Policy Project said advocates are very confident the measure will be approved by voters this autumn and said the current ban on pot for non-medical reasons has clearly not worked.
“The current policy by any measure is a failure,” Smith said. “Marijuana is widely available, more teenagers are smoking it than tobacco at this point. Prohibition, despite leading to the arrest of hundreds of thousands of people [nationwide] every year is doing no good.”
In 2008 more than 78,000 people were arrested in California for marijuana offenses and 80 percent of those arrests were for simple possession. Smith estimated that legalizing the drug would save the state hundreds of millions of dollars annually on law enforcement and prisons. He also pointed out that in the same year almost 60,000 violent crimes went unsolved in California, a number he said would decrease if police were allowed to focus on violent investigations instead of pot smokers.
“First of all, if legalizing marijuana can happen in any state, California is the obvious front-runner,” said John Zirinsky, a Republican pollster who has worked for several ballot initiative campaigns in California. “It was the first state to legalize medical marijuana and now has a booming medical marijuana industry — and, of course, there’s that stereotypical ‘laid-back’ California culture.”
Among the proposal’s opponents are interest groups representing law enforcement and prison guards, both of which would impacted directly by the change. Critics say legalizing pot poses a risk to public safety and could encourage drug use among youth.
Smith said voters are savvy enough to realize which groups benefit directly from enforcing the status quo and “continuing to arrest hundreds of thousands of marijuana users every year. They are going to be our main opposition.”
But resistance has been reduced noticeably by the state’s dire fiscal situation. State Assembly member Tom Ammiano of San Francisco introduced bills during the past two legislative sessions calling for the legalization and taxation of marijuana, which groups have estimated could raise as much as $1.4 billion in revenue annually.
“Over the past few years, a number of states facing budget deficits — including California — have used sin taxes to increase revenue without upsetting the broader tax base,” Zirinsky said. “If the initiative’s supporters can succeed in framing as a new revenue stream from bad-but-tolerable behavior, it appears to have a chance.”
With the state budget bleeding red, other state politicians and labor groups including the AFL-CIO and AFSCME have signed onto Ammiano’s proposal. Smith said his organization supports the bill, which is currently awaiting a hearing in the public safety committee.
“I think the legislation is a little bit bolder [than the ballot initiative] but both are a huge step in the right direction,” Smith said.
Supporters also point to an April 2009 field poll showing 56 percent of Californians support legalizing and taxing weed but Zirinsky warned them not to take passage for granted with all signs pointing to a strong turnout among conservatives this fall.
“My opinion is that the national electorate is currently signaling an elevated Republican turnout and a major drop-off among infrequent moderate and independent ‘swing’ voters,” Zirinsky said. “If the 2010 California turnout does end up looking more like 2004 than 2008, it would hurt this initiative’s chances. Remember Prop 8? With support not too far from 50 percent and this being another moral issue, there is the potential for another November surprise for a ballot initiative on a progressive social issue.”
Backers of both the bill and the ballot initiative are confident that if passed, California’s law would stand despite past federal warning against legalization. Smith said more than 99 percent of marijuana arrests take place on the state and local level and pointed out federal raids on medical marijuana facilities have all but disappeared since Obama took office.
“I’m hopeful Obama will take a more federalist position and allow states to have their own policy,” Smith said. “Give his stance on medical marijuana, we think we have an opportunity. The federal threat in the big picture is fairly insignificant based on resources. Also, the federal government is not going to be arresting people for small amounts of marijuana.”