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Weed shall overcome: can California help wind down the War on Drugs?

The Golden State may be about to legalise recreational marijuana use, potentially setting a template for worldwide drugs liberalisation

Tim Walker
Los Angeles
Monday 09 May 2016 01:49 BST
Backers of California's Adult Use of Marijuana Act have collected 600,000 signatures in support of the measure
Backers of California's Adult Use of Marijuana Act have collected 600,000 signatures in support of the measure (Getty Images)

It’s been an interesting few days for smokers in California. On one hand, Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill raising the state’s smoking age from 18 to 21; the measure, which applies to any tobacco product including electronic cigarettes, goes into effect on 9 June. On the other hand, by the end of this year, California could be the world’s biggest legal marijuana market.

Backers of the so-called Adult Use of Marijuana Act (AUMA), which would legalise weed for recreational use in the Golden State, announced last week that they had collected 600,000 signatures in support of the measure – close to twice as many as the 365,880 they needed to get the bill on the ballot at this November’s election.

The law, if passed, would permit adults of 21 or over to possess as much as an ounce of marijuana and grow up to six cannabis plants for personal use. It would create the framework for a distribution and retail market, managed by a new California Bureau of Marijuana Control, with a 15 per cent tax on all cannabis product sales.

In a statement, the state’s Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom – who supports the measure – said California voters would “finally have the opportunity to pass smart marijuana policy that is built on the best practices of other states, includes the strictest child protections in the nation and pays for itself while raising billions for the state.”

Mr Newsom said AUMA would have a dramatic effect on criminal justice, doing away with many of the low-level drug offences that fill California courtrooms. It would also benefit the environment, with a crackdown on illegal marijuana farms that use water diverted illegally from public waterways – a problem that has exacerbated the state’s recent long, deep drought.

AUMA is backed by a coalition of marijuana industry, medical and civil rights groups. Its most prominent individual supporter is the controversial Silicon Valley investor Sean Parker, the Napster co-founder and former President of Facebook, who has sunk more than $1m of his own fortune into funding the initiative, now commonly referred to as the “Parker measure”.

In 1996, California became the very first US state to legalise marijuana for medical use

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The bill’s critics include the California Police Chiefs Association, whose president, Ventura County Police Chief Ken Corney, voiced concerns that it could lead to an increase in addiction. “This is bad for our communities,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “This is bad for our youth and it’s a broad commercialisation [of drugs], a for-profit, money-making model.”

In 1996, California became the very first US state to legalise marijuana for medical use. Today, possession of an ounce or less of the drug is punishable only with a small fine. But while several states have taken the leap and legalised the cultivation and retail of recreational weed, California has struggled to regulate its vast, semi-legal marijuana industry.

California, the most populous state in the US, is also its biggest cannabis producer by far, with an annual harvest of legal, semi-legal and thoroughly illegal marijuana crops that together are worth more than $30bn per year, according to a 2014 estimate by Mother Jones. That’s more than the state’s top 10 legal agricultural commodities combined.

The most recent serious effort to legalise recreational pot use was in 2010, when a ballot measure was rejected by 53 per cent of voters. Another initiative failed even to reach the ballot box in 2014, after its supporters ran out of funds to collect sufficient signatures. But a poll last year found that 55 per cent of Californians are now in favour of full legalisation.

In fact, for the past three years, a majority of all Americans have favoured legalising weed, according to Gallup. Since the last California vote failed in 2010, Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Alaska and the District of Columbia have all legalised recreational use of the drug, and Colorado, Washington, Oregon have introduced legal weed retail and taxation.

Last year, Colorado made more money in weed taxes than it did from alcohol

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In 2014, the first year of legalisation, Colorado pot businesses sold almost $700m worth of medical and recreational weed. Last year, they beat that total comfortably, with recreational sales outstripping medical for the first time. The state made more money in weed taxes than it did from alcohol, not to mention all the new jobs being created in the so-called “green rush”.

The number of marijuana crimes in the state has shrunk exponentially – and there has been no major measurable increase in adult usage. Police have complained, however, of the difficulty of enforcing certain laws such as drugged driving. Colorado was also forced to introduce extra legislation to govern “edibles” – popular but potent pot-infused food products.

Experts warn that two years is not long enough to determine the effects of legalisation, but it was enough to convince other states. Several, such as Nevada and Massachusetts, plan a vote this year. California, though, is not only bigger than any other US state, but also than any country to have toyed with legalisation, including Portugal, Uruguay and the Netherlands.

Chris Lindsey, senior legislative analyst at the non-profit Marijuana Policy Project, said the Colorado experiment would provide lessons for legalisation in California. “California will be able to sidestep, or at least manage more effectively, some of the growing pains of the Colorado system,” he said.

“The fundamental question of whether or not legalisation makes sense has been answered,” Mr Lindsey added. “We’ve already got Colorado, Oregon, Washington and Alaska that have either rolled out, or are in the process of rolling out, a workable system. But the significance of California is its size.”

A major new legal industry could add billions to California coffers, with new taxation, new jobs and increased weed tourism. There are now 24 states where medical marijuana is legal. If AUMA passes in November, experts believe the legal recreational and medical marijuana industries in the US could be worth $23bn by 2020 – three times as much as this year.

In recent months, America’s neighbours have also made moves towards legalisation: Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asked his justice ministers to study the possibility, while Mexico’s Supreme Court ruled that individuals should have the right to grow and distribute cannabis for personal use. California could be a model not just for the rest of the US, but for the world.

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