Prop 19 – Legalize Marijuana

Proposition 19

(Image from thetimelesslight.wordpress.com)

Legalizes Marijuana under California but Not Federal Law. Permits Local Governments to Regulate and Tax Commercial Production, Distribution, and Sale of Marijuana.

Measure Details:

  • Legalizes possession of up to one ounce for everyone
  • Allows cultivation of up to 25 square feet, and possession of plants living in or harvested from that area (local authorities may authorize bigger areas for cultivation)
  • Allows sale of marijuana in licensed public establishments
  • Prohibits smoking in the presence of minors or consumption by the operator of a motor vehicle
  • Specifically states that it will not change various existing statutes related to marijuana

Common Arguments For:

  • You can use marijuana without abusing it, just like alcohol, and therefore it should not be prohibited.
  • Marijuana is safer than alcohol.
  • The cost of enforcing marijuana laws is high, possibly as much as $10 billion annually
  • It has the potential to raise significant tax revenue.

Common Arguments Against:

My Take:

I think that the most compelling argument to be made for legalizing marijuana is its comparison to alcohol. The CDC estimates that between 2001 and 2005 there were 79,000 deaths annually attributable to excessive alcohol use. Meanwhile, the Institute of Medicine at the National Academies (citing this article) found that “epidemiological data indicate that in the general population marijuana use is not associated with increased mortality.”

Despite the claims of opponents, it will still be illegal to drive after smoking if Prop 19 passes. Currently, Vehicle Code 23152 states that “[i]t is unlawful for any person who is under the influence of any alcoholic beverage or drug . . . to drive a vehicle.” The statute does not specify what level of consumption would constitute being “under the influence,” which allows opponents to make claims about Prop 19 leading to an increase in stoned driving. However, even if that is true, studies have found that “drivers with marijuana-only in their system are on average no more likely to cause accidents than those with low, legal levels of alcohol below the threshold for DUI.”

The Legislative Analyst’s Office [LAO], California’s nonpartisan fiscal and policy advisor, estimates that Prop 19 will result in “[s]avings of up to several tens of millions of dollars annually to state and local governments”. A recent study by the RAND Drug Policy Research Center estimated the costs of enforcing marijuana laws in California at $245 – 330 million. To give that number some context, the San Francisco Police Department’s proposed budget for 2011 – 2012 is about $440 million, and cities across the state have been hiring private contractors to take over policing due to budget problems.

With regards to tax revenues, there are three studies that have been done to look at the effect that legalization. The first was conducted by the California State Board of Equalization (BoE), analyzing AB 390, proposed by Rep. Tom Ammiano in 2009. This study found that the $50/ounce tax included in that law would generate nearly $1.4 billion annually. When they updated this analysis for Prop 19, however, they were unable to estimate revenue impacts because Prop 19 does not specify a tax for marijuana sales; that would require a separate effort by legislators, either state or local. The RAND Corporation, conducting a similar study to that done by the BoE, found revenues of between $674 and $883 million annually under a range of different supply and demand assumptions.

The California Chamber of Commerce claims that Prop 19 would make it impossible for employers to discipline employees caught coming to work high. However, Section 11304(c) says:

“No person shall be punished, fined, discriminated against, or be denied any right or privilege for lawfully engaging in any conduct permitted by this Act or authorized pursuant to Section 11301 of this Act. Provided however, that the existing right of an employer to address consumption that actually impairs job performance by an employee shall not be affected.”

The language of the Chamber of Commerce press release is interesting to note as well, especially in the context of the claims that Prop 19 will lead to increased driving because it doesn’t prohibit use before driving:

“[U]nlike alcohol use, which employers can prohibit entirely at work, under Proposition 19, employers could only take action for marijuana use that “actually impairs” work performance.” (Emphasis added)

Employers can prohibit alcohol use at work, but they cannot take action against someone who simply shows up to work with a buzz going unless their performance is affected, the same standard that would apply to marijuana.

There are also opponents from the other side, who argue that the legislation does not go far enough in decriminalizing marijuana and actually creates a number of situations in which it becomes easier to bring people up on possession charges. The first thing to be considered when looking at this issue is whether or not the state would enforce such technicalities, especially given the recent decriminalization in California. All of the complaints at that site (the only pro-marijuana, anti-Prop 19 site I came across, though I didn’t look too hard) assume a world in which, once Prop 19 passes, the police enforce marijuana laws with much more attention to technicalities and details than they do now. Frankly, I think that’s just incorrect. Were a situation to arise in which marijuana users were unhappy with their access through legal channels, I would be surprised if illegal channels were not available, and less risky due to the fact that marijuana would be so readily available elsewhere. I may be wrong about this, but I just don’t think this is a trick to trick people into situations where they can be arrested.

All of this may be irrelevant, however. Even if Prop 19 passes, marijuana is still illegal according to the federal government, so their response will be crucial in determining the actual on-the-ground changes.

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