While taking my daughter to a punk-rock concert a few years ago, I noticed something even more fascinating than fellow concert-goers’ hairdos and intricate tattoos. It involved some common behavior.
Many people stood outside the venue, puffing cigarettes. When the doors opened, everyone — with no exception — put out their smokes before filing inside. But smoking didn’t stop. As the lights went down, clouds of marijuana smoke rose up across the hall.
Tobacco is a legal but regulated product, so when authorities announced that no tobacco is allowed, people complied. Recreational marijuana use is not legal, so people smoked it as soon as they felt safe from being caught. It’s already illegal, so why follow rules?
Public debates over marijuana use may become more common as supporters of legalization gather signatures for a November 2014 initiative. In 2010, a similar measure (Proposition 19) did respectably, but lost by 7 points. A new poll shows 60-percent of likely voters supporting legalization.
Such efforts have long had a “Cheech and Chong” stigma, and this particular initiative is viewed by some as an overly broad long shot. But supporters of the concept are increasingly focused on issues that are mainstream and wonkish — i.e., increasing government revenues, stretching law-enforcement resources and protecting the environment.
They often point out what the story above illustrates: People behave more responsibly when they are free to do something — and when that something is taxed and regulated rather than pushed into the shadows.
“Medical marijuana is nothing more than a land-use issue to me,”
said Max Del Real, a lobbyist who represents medical-marijuana
shops. “How do we regulate, tax them and move on?” He has lobbied
San Diego to adopt an ordinance similar to the one in Sacramento,
which raises $2.5 million a year in taxes from 39 legal
Dispensaries are allowed under California’s Proposition 215, but enforcement varies by locality. Many cities, including San Diego for the time being, use land-use restrictions to ban dispensaries.
Counties recognize different limits on how much “medicine” a patient may have. The feds have cracked down on dispensaries in California, but recently told Colorado and Washington officials that they will allow their legalization laws to proceed. It’s a mixed-up mess.
As a result, many cannabis growers operate in the shadows, paying no taxes, following no rules and despoiling the environment. Del Real opposes legalization, but prefers a regulatory framework that gives cities a tax incentive to be more rational in their medical-marijuana policies.
Humboldt County, 200 miles north of San Francisco, is Ground Zero in the debate. The redwood-forested county has the perfect climate for growing marijuana, and a political climate that’s amenable to it, too.
Mikal Jakabul, whose documentary film, “One Good Year,” chronicled the lives of some Humboldt growers, told me it would be hard to find a jury that would convict anyone for marijuana cultivation given how socially acceptable and economically beneficial it is locally. So the industry flourishes.
Humboldt’s District Attorney Paul Gallegos favors decriminalization, even as he points to ill effects of marijuana. “We should use our criminal justice system not to punish people for doing things we don’t like, but for things they are doing that are wrong, … like killing and robbing people,” he said in an interview Tuesday. Current laws “reward the wicked and punish the innocent,” he added.
Ironically, Humboldt residents voted overwhelmingly against legalization in 2010, for reasons that might have to do with protecting a homegrown industry from outside competition.
Jakubal favors legalization in general but fears the current initiative would lure out-of-town marijuana “miners,” who clear-cut forests, poison water supplies and drive out local growers. Protections for family farms must be “hard-written” into any initiative, he said.
But Nate Bradley, a former Wheatland police officer who represents Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, said it would be easier to crack down on misbehavior by growers if they were regulated like other businesses. And he complains that the war on marijuana diverts police resources from more serious matters.
With widespread agreement on the failure of current policies, it may only be a matter of time before California officials acknowledge politically what those concert-goers understood inherently — legalizing a product may be the best way to control its use.