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Free Minds & Free Markets

Despite Being Heavy-Handed, California Marijuana Rules Signal End of Prohibition

It's happening.

It's an old cliché, but one doesn't find beer distributors gunning each other down in the town square in battles over market turf. Whisky distillers don't dump pollutants in streams and rivers—and bars and restaurants that serve cocktails tend to be safe places that follow modern building codes. People rarely go blind drinking hooch that some disreputable "distiller" made in a bathtub.

Alcoholism causes terrible problems, but since the end of Prohibition Americans have made their peace with booze. It's been harder convincing policy makers to take a similar approach with marijuana, even though the War on Drugs has left a trail of destruction that's as troubling as the ill it seeks to combat. Conservative icon William F. Buckley warned years ago about the toll that war would take on civil liberties and budgets, but few heeded his warnings. When will politicians learn?

Fortunately, voters are learning that the relatively benign drug of marijuana is best dealt with using a tax-and-regulatory approach rather than SWAT teams and prosecutions. The federal government is behind the times, of course, with Attorney General Jeff Sessions blathering about weed in a way that would make members of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union proud, if there were indeed still members of that group.

Californians voted last November by a 14-point margin to legalize recreational uses of marijuana. It wasn't that controversial, having the backing of the California Medical Association, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) and Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher of Huntington Beach. California is one of several states that legalize recreational use. Twenty-nine states plus the District of Columbia legalize weed in some form. Even Arkansas passed a medical-marijuana measure.

It's been a long process watching this illicit industry morph into a legal one, which should be a wakeup call for those who think that one year into any presidency is going to lead to any serious swamp-draining in any area of public life. Regulatory rollbacks can take a very long time. Sadly, the marijuana legalization process has been excruciatingly slow given that marijuana use wasn't particularly taboo even when I was in high school 40 years ago.

It's been more than 20 years since Californians voted to legalize medical marijuana with the passage of Proposition 215. That was a good idea even though it created bizarre scenarios. It's widely known that one need only claim "anxiety" to get a prescription, which then opens the door to products sold at dispensaries. That never really bothered me. If it weren't for regulatory workarounds, there would be far fewer freedoms in this country.

But it wasn't until last year that the California legislature finally got around to establishing rules for dispensaries that were operating in a legal gray area since 1996. Again, the voters led the way. When it seemed obvious that Proposition 64, the recreational legalization measure, would be on the November 2016 ballot, legislators realized they finally needed to clarify the legal framework for medical marijuana, because that would become the template for recreational sales.

And now, with legal sales of recreational products coming online, the state government just issued 276 pages of regulations to deal with the budding weed market. This is California, so the tax bite will be steep—and the rules govern every aspect of marijuana's sale and delivery.

Adults may purchase up to an ounce of marijuana. Weed may not be delivered via drone or bicycle and must be tested for various chemicals, according to news reports. There are limits on additives such as caffeine and THC (the high-causing compound) levels in edibles. Many rules are perfectly reasonable, but there's a current debate over the size of allowable marijuana grows. Some state officials are upset that the new regulations don't limit the size of marijuana farms.

Local governments are wrestling with limits and even bans on marijuana sales, which shouldn't be a surprise given that cities still regulate and debate the number and locations of liquor stores and tobacco sellers. Police worry that illegal grows may continue given that marijuana is still illegal elsewhere—and California could be a source of illegal exports.

Before the initiative passed, I wrote about longtime marijuana activists who opposed legalization efforts. Some did so because they feared that the new highly regulated and taxed regimen would be too heavy-handed and oppressive. Some attitudes may reflect an old saying about the "Baptists and the Bootleggers" who united to support Prohibition—the first for moral reasons, the second to protect their established market share.

The debates often overlook an obvious fact. Marijuana isn't called weed for nothing—it grows easily and is widely available, legal or not. For all the flaws in the state's evolving legalization process, it's still better than the Prohibitionist alternative. Maybe one day soon, marijuana businesses will be totally mainstream—and will be stuck complaining about high taxes and overregulation like the rest of us.

This column was first published in the Orange County Register.

Photo Credit: eggrole/flickr

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  • BestUsedCarSales||

    best dealt with using a tax-and-regulatory approach /I>

    Maybe better but let's not to nuts and say best.

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    My first thought too. Nothing involving government is "best".

    In a facebook debate right now with sister, niece, and nephew over net neutrality. I tried asking how they think it would affect, say, grocery stores? You'd have to ban express and self checkout lanes. No more price discount for the big box of Cheerios or the 24-pack of toilet paper. All I got was blather about what Comcast says it wants to do. I threw in AT&T history, how the first phone companies were all technically isolated with different voltages and technologies but were learning to interoperate, while AT&T was strangling its competition. but as lawsuits and the market began thumping AT&T, they responded by getting the government to regulate them. You had to lease phones from AT&T, no independent choices, and how MCI (later Sprint) had to sue to interoperate, how faxes and modems were delayed, possibly by decades, by AT&T intransigence, and is that what you want for the Internet? No of course not, but it's what you get, a stifled and suffocated Internet, if the government sledge hammer lays down the law. Government is never the answer, free markets always are.

    Crickets.

  • Telcontar the Wanderer||

    "best dealt with using a tax-and-regulatory approach"

    Target copypasted, initiating sarcastic response seque-...

    ...dammit BUCS.

  • Telcontar the Wanderer||

    "with legal sales of recreational products coming online, the state government just issued 276 pages of regulations to deal with the budding weed market. This is California, so the tax bite will be steep—and the rules govern every aspect of marijuana's sale and delivery."

    You know who else had a system of institutionalized tyranny taken away from them, only to immediately replace it with a system of taxes, regulations and petty rules designed to replicate the conditions of the ostensibly abolished oppression...?

  • Robert||

    The Puritans? The Indians? The Negroes? Prizefighters? Hitler?

  • Tionico||

    Washington State's liquor control board, recently dumped by a citizen's iniative. The price of booze in this stinking state has nearly doubled, despite the fact that the state is, ostensibly and theoretically, "no longer in the business" as they once were.

    THEN the same bunch of gummit dweebs went to work to destroy the new marijuana industry before it even was made legal.
    That's gummit atwork for ya

  • Telcontar the Wanderer||

    "having the backing of... Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher"

    Not satisfied with undermining Americans' previously adamantine faith in its political institutions and revealing to them the terrible truth of fracking-induced syphilis, Premier Putin moved on to promoting Western cultural decay with his most dastardly plan yet...

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Prohibitive regulation is better than nothing!

  • Ron||

    Well if the growers don't start policing themselves we Californians will start cracking down again only harder. these asshole growers are being real assholes to neighbors and the land and if the police don't do something about it soon then the citizens will start to take action

  • ApoxOnBothTheirHouses||

    "When will politicians learn?"

    Third Tuesday after the 10th of never.

  • Roger Knights||

    Here's how Mencken phrased that:
    "The first Tuesday after the first Monday after Resurrection Morn."

  • Robert||

    What I find fun to speculate about is which substance will next make it over the fence. 'Shrooms? Coca tea? GBL?

  • Hank Phillips||

    What really happened was a repeat of 1929 and 1987. Bert Hoover pushed prosecutor Mabel Willebrandt's carefully-engineered plan for using the the 16-year-old Income Tax Amendment to enforce the 9-year-old Prohibition Amendment by libel, forfeiture and confiscation. Money fled banks and brokerages and liquidity collapsed ahead of the approaching Depression. Reagan and Bush did the same thing in 1987-1992. George Waffen Bush repeated the error after filling the government with faith-based fanatics. California civilians took the asset-forfeiture collapse on the chin as feds and local heat swooped in for loot. Dems won after each such crash, and California and other States are enacting the equivalent of a 21st Amendment for hemp in order to protect their economies from collapse.

  • Empress Trudy||

    If you want to get the government off your back figure out a way to tax weed according to its THC content the same way liquor is taxed according to its alcohol content

  • ohdelilah||

    If you want the government off your back, demand that the government get off your back. If they cared about tax revenue, they'd stop spending tens of billions of dollars every year insuring that millions of dollars worth of drugs aren't taxed at all.

  • frankania||

    The last paragraph told an important fact. Weed is EASY to grow yourself....you don't need to worry about rules, and taxes, and amounts etc. Just grow it an consume it (and share it with your friends)

  • ohdelilah||

    And in most states, supplying a drug, even for free, is the same as selling it. Good luck in prison.

  • ohdelilah||

    It's easy to grow tomatoes, too. How many people do you know who grow their own tomatoes?

  • Rockabilly||

    I grow my own marijuana and tomatoes.

    The US Constitution is silent on what a free individual may grow, eat, drink (sorry progressive marxists - your prohibition amendment was voided ) or smoke.

    In short - the so called war on drugs - is un Constitutional.

    And now I will have a fresh tomato salad and for dessert a delicious marijuana brownie !!!

  • EscherEnigma||

    In short - the so called war on drugs - is un Constitutional.
    While I don't disagree, I'd like to point out that any such finding in court would be "Judicial Activism" and "invented rights".

  • ohdelilah||

    "It's been harder convincing policy makers to take a similar approach with marijuana, even though the War on Drugs has left a trail of destruction that's as troubling as the ill it seeks to combat."

    You criticize policy makers for not making the leap of logic from alcohol to marijuana while conveniently refusing to make a similar leap to other drugs and other drug users. When will politicians learn? Oh, they've learned. People like you teach them every day. This drug, not that one. These users, not those. There's a word for that, that belief that the lives and freedoms of certain drug users are more precious than the lives and freedoms of others. The word is "prohibition." And it won't end until we all matter.

  • Rockabilly||

    Comrade Moonbeam and His Central Committee makes taxing and regulating marihuana fun!

    If you own a business in California that sells cannabis and/or cannabis products, you must register with the CDTFA for a seller's permit and regularly file sales and use tax returns. In addition to a seller's permit, if you are a distributor of cannabis and/or cannabis products, you must register with the CDTFA for a cannabis tax permit and regularly file cannabis tax returns.

    http://www.cdtfa.ca.gov/industry/cannabis.htm

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