California Countdown Begins

California Countdown Begins

More or less ten months from now, on the night of November 8, 2016, the marijuana world will glue itself to the screen, hold its fragrant breath and wait to see what happens in California.


It’s a very big deal. California is the eighth largest economy in the world. The economic and political heft of the Golden State could permanently tip the scales, not just in the U.S. but in Mexico, where voters will be paying close attention. If California legalizes full adult use, the worldwide marijuana market will nearly double.


But at T-minus ten months and counting, it’s very far from certain.


How Could It Possibly Fail?

The problem may be a dizzying array of choices. As of November, nine, ten, eighteen or perhaps dozens of legalization proposals (depending on how you count them) are vying for a spot on the ballot. Support could easily become so fragmented that all the options fail.


It will take approximately 300,000 valid signatures for any initiative to win a spot. To get 300,000 good signatures it takes multiples of that number to account for the joker at the mall who signs his name “Mickey Mouse” and other vagaries. Sponsors of the various initiatives have only until the spring to submit petitions. For this part of the effort, it’s really T-minus three or four months, not ten.


California also has a long, complicated and rich history with cannabis, mostly illegal. San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley were at the forefront from the beginning. A casual observer could be forgiven for thinking that recreational cannabis was already legal in the Bay area. But with an anti-cannabis president and an aggressive Department of Justice, it could all go away.


Humboldt County and the rest of the Emerald Triangle have the reputation of producing some of the finest weed in the country. After years of outlaw growing, these folks may not fit easily into a squeaky clean, tax and regulate system.


Then there is the fact that California is huge, with 38.8 million residents in upwards of 11 media markets. The task of organizing political support is both big and expensive. A disciplined, organized opposition could play an outsized role in the eventual outcome. Remember that recreational legalization has failed before.


What’s a High Intent User to Do?

It’s too early to try to pick a winner. The Adult Use of Marijuana Act appears to be well-funded and has the support of powerful national organizations including the Marijuana Policy Project, but much could still change.


Some of the proposals are still taking shape, so it is still possible for activists to play a role in crafting the law. As the debacle in Ohio taught us, it matters how legalization occurs as much as whether it happens.


Perhaps the best thing to do for someone who wants a hand in shaping the future is to identify the “must-haves,” the “like-to-haves” and the issues that could be used as bargaining chips to achieve consensus. A very useful chart put together in July, while not current, may be a good place to start in identifying issues. Here are some questions to start with:


  • Is it essential that there be retroactive relief for old marijuana convictions? What kind of convictions? Will records be expunged, and will those with old convictions be able to work in the newly legal industry?
  • What provisions will be in place to protect minors, especially from accidental ingestion of edibles?
  • Will individuals be able to grow for personal use?
  • Are the rates of taxation sufficiently low to enable the legal product to compete with black market marijuana?
  • Will licensing provisions encourage a diverse and competitive industry? Will existing medical marijuana dispensaries get some kind of preferential treatment with respect to recreational licenses?
  • Will licensees be required to be vertically integrated businesses or will there be opportunities for small, locally-based businesses? This also goes to the issue of application and permit fees.
  • Will the law permit cannabis clubs?
  • What about the existing illegal, but self-regulated grows in the Emerald Triangle? Much of the output is too good and too famous to lose. A study before the Vermont legislature suggests a special category of “craft” licenses. Might this be a way to address the issue?
  • Will users of legal cannabis be protected from discrimination in employment, housing, education and child custody and neglect proceedings? What about the risk of civil asset forfeiture?

This hardly exhausts the list of possible concerns and is only designed to spark discussion. The essential point is that interested parties should first identify priorities for the shape of the legal cannabis future.


Time, Talents, Treasure

Ok, you knew this was coming. Steps two through whatever it takes to bring cannabis-for-fun out of the closet involve actually doing something. Communicate preferences, ally with organizations already at work (some sponsors are also listed on that useful July chart), and carry petitions. You know the drill. It’s really going to take feet on the ground and dollar-by-gritty-dollar fundraising. The illusion of inevitability is the biggest risk.


California cannabis is not going to legalize itself, and failure might set the movement back for years.


Tick, Tick

It can be tough to make the step from observer/consumer to advocate, and marijuana activism is no different. California is important, though, not just for Californians and people who like to visit, but for the sheer size of the population, market and the impact of unique creative culture. California is important to everyone who appreciates herb.