Calif. Newspapers Warm to Pot Legalization, Thanks to Taxes and Regulations

Slightly more personal freedom is just a side effect.


Amihays /

When California considered legalizing recreational marijuana use back in 2010 with Proposition 19, the then-pioneering nature of the initiative rendered it pretty much radioactive to nearly every newspaper editorial board in the state.

I should know; I was one of only a handful of editorial writers to endorse Prop. 19, as editor of the tiny Desert Dispatch out in the Route 66 town of Barstow. Matt Welch wrote about the terrible logic behind the opposition (the proposition would create a confusing patchwork of city regulations and therefore that was somehow worse than putting people in jail).

This year things are different. Not only have states like Colorado and Washington legalized recreational marijuana without turning into hellscapes of addiction and tragedy (no more than usual, anyway); but Proposition 64, on the ballot this November, gives the state-controlled tax and regulation systems that so many editorial boards in the state are thirsting for.

So now, newspapers who smacked down Prop. 19 back in 2010 are lining up to give Prop. 64 a thumb's up. The Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco Chronicle are both officially endorsing the proposition. What pleased the Chronicle's board was the "blue-ribbon commission" brought together to hammer out the rules overseen by Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and that cities will have the ability to levy their own taxes and ban outdoor cultivation. The Times as well is impressed that the new proposition introduces a regime that is so very, very regulated:

The measure would impose state taxes on commercial cultivation and sales that could eventually raise more than $1 billion a year. The measure would dedicate the new revenue to youth drug education, prevention and treatment programs, law enforcement programs to reduce driving under the influence, and environmental restoration of land damaged by illegal cannabis cultivation.

But there are some editorial boards who remain unconvinced. The rejection by the Sacramento Bee is particularly awful. I suppose we shouldn't be surprised that the newspaper of the state's capitol is deeply offended at the idea that people outside the government might make lots of money off marijuana. The Bee's commentary is full-on nanny-state panic about exaggerated health concerns and misguided apples-and-oranges comparisons to tobacco and worries that advertising will "normalize" marijuana use the way it "normalized" alcohol use. So is the Bee opposed to legalized alcohol, too? Then there's this doozy of a section:

Backers contend Proposition 64 is a civil liberties issue. And police do use marijuana as probable cause to investigate and, sometimes, arrest people, even if those arrests, which disproportionately affect poor black and Latino Californians, rarely lead to convictions and amount to harassment at times.

But the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation reports not a single person is in state prison today because of marijuana possession. Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed legislation decriminalizing marijuana possession in 2010. After years of inaction, the Legislature last year approved detailed regulations for medical marijuana. No one with a medical marijuana card—and they're readily available from physicians who advertise 4/20 services—risks so much as a ticket.

Not a single person is in prison today, so what's the worry? That the police will have one less probable cause excuse to investigate and—in the Bee's own words—harass minorities isn't that big a deal because they don't end up in state prison! They are only "rarely" convicted! How privileged and sheltered a life do you have to live to look at this dynamic and think that everything's fine?

Thus far Ballotpedia notes five major newspapers endorsing and six newspapers opposing. But the pro side got a big boost today as Digital First Media, which owns a pack of daily newspapers in California, including the Orange County Register, The Riverside Press-Enterprise, and the Long Beach Press-Telegram, published an editorial in its California papers endorsing Prop. 64. The editorial notes:

For half a century, efforts to control and prevent marijuana use have relied upon the brute force of criminalization. It is increasingly apparent that marijuana prohibition, much like alcohol prohibition, has been a costly, failed experiment that flies in the face of growing demand for the substance.

It's now time we legalize recreational use of marijuana in California.

Personal use of marijuana is victimless. It is less harmful to those who use it than alcohol or tobacco, both of which are already legal. And arresting and incarcerating people for possession of marijuana is a poor use of law enforcement resources and space in our already overcrowded jails.

There is one voice of opposition to Proposition 64 that might come as a surprise to Reason readers: the Libertarian Party of California. Yes, that's right. The party's Executive Committee went through all the initiatives on the ballot this fall and voted whether to support or oppose. They decided to oppose Prop. 64. The party notes on its site, "While the Libertarian Party has been a strong supporter of ending marijuana prohibition for over 40 years, this proposition does more harm than good, damaging medical availability, and creating additional criminal offenses and regulations." I've reached out to see if I can get a better sense of what sort of actual harms they believe will come when compared to the laws as they stand today.