Election 2016

California Legalizes Marijuana

Six states have now decided to tolerate cannabis consumption without a doctor's note.


Jacob Sullum

Today, two decades after California became the first state to legalize marijuana for medical use, voters in that state finally got around to letting people consume cannabis for fun. With 16 percent of precincts reporting, California's legalization initiative, Proposition 64, was favored by 56 percent of voters, and A.P. is calling the race.

California is by far the most populous state to legalize marijuana. Approval of Proposition 64, which creates an uninterrupted pot-friendly zone along the West Coast, by itself more than triples the number of Americans who live in jurisdictions that see fit to tolerate cannabis consumption without a doctor's note. That development will dramatically increase pressure on Congress to accommodate states' rejection of marijuana prohibition.

Proposition 64 lets adults 21 or older possess up to an ounce of marijuana in public, share up to an ounce at a time with other adults, and grow up to six plants at home, where they may keep the produce of those plants. Those provisions take effect right away.

The initiative charges the California Department of Food and Agriculture with overseeing marijuana growers, the Department of Public Health with overseeing manufacturers and testing facilities, and the Department of Consumer Affairs with overseeing distributors and retailers. The departments are supposed to begin issuing licenses in 2018.

Marijuana will be taxed twice: $9.25 per ounce collected from growers plus 15 percent of the retail price. Proposition 64 explicitly allows deliveries to consumers and on-site consumption at businesses licensed for that purpose. Both of those options will be subject to approval by local governments, which also can ban marijuana businesses entirely and regulate (but not ban) home cultivation.

In other respects, Proposition 64, whose backers brag that it includes "the toughest regulations of any adult-use marijuana proposal submitted to date," is pretty restrictive, forbidding many forms of advertising, setting detailed packaging and labeling requirements, and treating possession of any amount greater than an ounce as a misdemeanor punishable by a $500 fine and up to six months in jail. The same penalties apply to sharing any amount of marijuana with adults younger than 21, which includes passing a joint among college students.

Proposition 64 was supported by Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, and at least six other members of California's congressional delegation, including two Republicans. It was opposed by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a reliably gung-ho drug warrior, but not by California's other senator, Barbara Boxer, who said before the election she was inclined to vote for legalization. In contrast with 2010, when a legalization initiative fell a few points short of passage, newspaper that took a position also tended to favor Proposition 64—15 to 10, by Ballotpedia's count.

Supporters of Proposition 64, whose leading donor was former Facebook president Sean Parker, raised more than $22 million, while the opponents managed only $2 million or so, most of it from Julie Schauer, a retired Pennsylvania art professor who sees eye to eye with Harry Anslinger on the subject of marijuana and murder.

"This is the most important moment in the history of the marijuana legalization movement," says Marijuana Majority Chairman Tom Angell. "California is the sixth-largest economy in the world and is hugely culturally influential. Most importantly, this vote will dramatically accelerate the end of federal marijuana prohibition."