Marijuana Law Reform on the West Coast: Prop 19 and Measure 74
This next election holds a lot of promise — or perhaps a lot of danger — for those with a keen interest in drug policy, particularly for those living on the left side of the country. California’s Proposition 19 is an all-out attempt to legalize marijuana, and Oregon’s own Measure 74 attempts to create a full dispensary system for medical marijuana patients who are currently required to supply themselves.
Both are certainly ambitious and hold a lot of promise to change the drug policy landscape on both a state and national level if they pass. Marijuana is generally considered to be the most widely-used illicit substance in the world; the tone in UN publications such as the 2010 World Drug Report tends to be somewhat resigned in this matter. Many possible solutions (and for that matter, redefinitions of what it is exactly that needs solving) have been proposed over the course of the US-led War on Drugs and have included increasing enforcement, decriminalization, and outright legalization.
California appears prone to select this lattermost option. Proposition 19 legalizes marijuana possession for anyone over 21 — the current drinking age — for a quantity up to one ounce, or as much as you can grow within a five foot square plot of land.
Furthermore, it proposes a regulation system to, amongst other things, allow the taxation of marijuana on a city and county level. This could prove a tempting but insufficient salve to California’s gaping budget wounds. Certainly it is the taxation aspect that has been used to coax a number of doubters onto the side of “fiscal responsibility,” though doubts exist as to whether the revenue will really be as high as the $1.4 billion prediction lauded by proponents.
This would mark the biggest move made by California in drug law reform in quite some time. Marijuana was decriminalized back in 1975, and the current medical marijuana system erected in 1996. Schwarzenegger recently signed a bill into law that reduces possession of marijuana under 1 ounce to the status of a mere infraction — a traffic ticket — with the idea of stripping down support for the far more radical Prop 19, which he opposes despite having formerly encouraged discussion of legalization.
One of the main arguments given for Prop 19 has its roots in the medical marijuana dispensary system. Widely abused, the current system enables virtually anyone who wants a prescription to get one, allowing the current state of affairs to be one of de facto legalization after a little paperwork and a few dollars. Even beneath that facade, there’s a widespread public acceptance, or at least apathy, towards marijuana use, and in the case of the so-called Emerald Triangle of marijuana producing counties, an economical need for the industry. Why not simply go ahead and codify it, and remove the inefficiencies that are inherent in a black market?
However, from there, a tangle of arguments, counter-arguments, and counter-counter arguments arise. For example, many critics argue that marijuana is, simply put, bad for you, and should therefore remain illegal. Given the burgeoning body of research that firmly places the effects of marijuana consumption to be safety-wise more in league with alcohol, an exceedingly legal drug, compared to harder drugs such as heroin or cocaine, fears of enabling a reefer madness generation appear to be largely unfounded. Indeed, one of the arguments given by many pro-drug law reform groups is that marijuana is less harmful than alcohol — dying of a marijuana overdose is physically impossibility — and that by legalizing marijuana the more desperate issues of substance abuse will be minimized because users will have a safer drug to use and, yes, possibly abuse.
Another argument commonly levied against Prop 19 is that legalization will increase demand for marijuana, which will in turn dramatically increase the amount of drug-related crime. After all, by creating a legal market for marijuana, the now notorious Mexican cartels could theoretically work to flood the market, bringing with them the vicious violence that has so deeply shattered towns such as Ciudad Juarez. Proponents argue that, far from increasing crime, by stimulating a local marijuana production industry, demand for cartel-grown marijuana will decrease and thus actually hurt cartels.
Obviously, there are more arguments. Debate over how the minutiae of Prop 19 will help or hurt their communities splits seemingly unified demographics in two. Faint trends may be discerned, but there often seems to be as many counter examples as there are examples. The latest polls indicate that Californians seem ever-so-slightly in favor of Prop 19, but it’s a fickle number, one that flickers seemingly at random. Only election day will tell.
Closer to home is Oregon’s own Measure 74, which would license nonprofit medical marijuana dispensaries. Currently medical marijuana patients are required to either grow their own marijuan, or have a caregiver grow it for them under highly restricted circumstances. This has been likened by drug policy reform activists to requiring patients to manufacture their own aspirin. Especially given the nature of many of the patients — elderly victims of cancer, arthritis or other debilitating disease — this appears to be a compassionate and pragmatic response.
Oregon’s history with medical marijuana has been an awkward one. In 1998, Oregon became the second state in the US after California to legalize medical marijuana usage. Oregon’s medical marijuana system was from the start far more restrictive than California’s loose medical criteria, allowing only extremely debilitating conditions to qualify. However, critically, it lacked any form of infrastructural support for medical marijuana patients, leaving them largely to fend for themselves after they received the doctor’s orders. To amend this, in 2004 a measure similar to the current one was introduced, Measure 33, which ended up being rejected by voters.
This time, medical marijuana patient advocates like John Sajo of Voter Power, co-author of the measure and Reed alum, think they have created something a little bit more palpable to voters: a more structured measure that offers tighter but still workable regulations on medical marijuana dispensaries than Measure 33. Having dispensaries will not only decrease the amount of time between getting a prescription and having your first crop of your medicine, but will also allow patients to experiment more with different strains to see which ones help them the most. It will also tax the medical marijuana that is sold through these dispensaries, which will not only cover the cost of the regulatory structure but also add to the ailing state coffers.
Yet there are still fears. Critics argue that creating a dispensary system is merely a way to create a de facto legalization, just as it arguably happened in California. Given the robustness of the regulatory structure being proposed, and the comparatively small pool of medical marijuana patients that it would encompass, this appears to be unlikely.
Of course, for both laws, there exists a certain tension with federal law. The federal government has consistently maintained that, in accordance to the Commerce Clause in the Constitution, that federal law holds precedence over state law in issues that affect interstate trade, such as the drug market rendered illicit through the federal Controlled Substances Act. This argument was upheld in the 2005 Gonzales vs. Raich Supreme Court Case with regard to medical marijuana, though only a sporadic attempt at enforcement in the fifteen states that have legalized medical marijuana has thus far been made.
So, even if both of these pass into law, there is question of how effective they can be if state residents still have to live in fear of possible federal prosecution. Many of those who would be otherwise affected by such legislation may choose to remain underground — at least when they aren’t in the open, there’s less of a chance that a SWAT team won’t just be able to look up their address in the state tax database before breaking down the door.
The effect of these laws on Reed is peripheral at best, but still important. Certainly, enough Reedies are unabashed about their pot use that at least a cursory vote legalization is warranted, even if medical marijuana has not yet been an issue for the college.
Want to get vote on these issues? Reed chapter of SSDP will be tabling with VOX from October 11-15 in Commons from 12-1:30PM and in the evenings in the library lobby to help people register to vote in either Oregon or California.