California voters will have a chance to legalize recreational marijuana in November, a prospect that is stirring anxiety among some North Coast cannabis farmers while it may also push the nation toward ending the federal prohibition of pot.
If approved by a majority of voters, the measure cleared last week for the fall ballot would complete California’s marijuana odyssey, starting with a first-in-the-nation approval of medical marijuana in 1996. Six years ago, California voters rejected a legalization measure, and last year the state enacted a new law to regulate and tax medicinal cannabis for the first time in 20 years.
“The time has come,” said North Coast Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, whose North Coast district produces 60 percent of the state’s pot crop. Huffman, one of 11 California state and federal legislators endorsing the measure, predicted it will win approval due to public recognition that the only way to deal with pot’s impact — including crime and the poisoning of North Coast forests — is to legalize and regulate it.
“There is a growing consensus that the status quo is dysfunctional,” he said.
Championed by Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and backed by two billionaires, the Adult Use of Marijuana Act, known as AUMA, would allow people 21 and over to possess an ounce of marijuana and to grow up to six plants at home for personal use. Smoking or ingesting the psychoactive plant would be illegal in any place open to the public.
Legalization would trim state criminal justice spending by millions of dollars and generate up to $1 billion in taxes, and an early poll of likely voters found 60 percent would support it, a high number for ballot measures coming out of the gate.
If California joins Washington and Oregon in forging a West Coast wall of legal marijuana, Congress will be forced to eventually change federal laws, Huffman said.
Two other states, Colorado and Alaska, already have permitted recreational marijuana, and 11 more are considering the same step this year. If they all do so, almost 60 percent of the nation’s population, 185 million people, would live in places where medical use, recreational use or both are permitted.
But there is also concern in California, largely among law enforcers, over marijuana’s impact on public safety and a pronounced unease among North Coast pot cultivators that legalization will trigger a wave of big business investment that overwhelms longstanding family farms.
“We want to see California have a grower-friendly market,” said Hezekiah Allen, executive director of the 600-member California Growers Association. The group, currently neutral on the ballot measure, will meet Thursday in Sacramento to reconsider its position.
Small farmers account for as many as half of the estimated 50,000 to 60,000 growers of medical and non-medical marijuana, Allen said.
Opinions on the legalization measure are mixed in a region where marijuana has come far out of the shadows socially and economically. The Emerald Cup, featuring a contest to pick the best bud and designated smoking areas, draws thousands of people to the Sonoma County Fairgrounds each year. A dispensary owner, Robert Jacob, serves on the Sebastopol City Council.
The marijuana industry is one of the few vibrant economic sectors in the Emerald Triangle of Mendocino, Humboldt and Trinity counties. In Sonoma County, 18 pot dispensaries paid taxes on nearly $31 million in retail sales in 2014.
What marijuana legalization means
The Adult Use of Marijuana Act, which will appear on the November ballot, would:
Allow people 21 and over to possess, transport or give away an ounce of marijuana and to grow up to six plants at home for personal use.
Require all plants or marijuana in excess of an ounce to be kept locked up and out of public view in or outside a person’s home.
Prohibit smoking or ingesting marijuana in any place open to the public.
Set no limit on the size of a commercial marijuana garden.
Allow cities and counties to ban any type of cannabis business and to prohibit outdoor but not indoor residential cultivation.
Set a 15 percent sales tax, in addition to existing sales taxes, on all marijuana sales, plus additional taxes on commercial cultivation. Local governments could impose taxes, as well.