California and Recreational Marijuana – The Pioneer and the Laggard

By Phil Mauriello Jr.

It has been years since the last time California voters went to the polls to try and legalize marijuana in their state. In 1996, California was the first state to legalize marijuana for medical use, making it a pioneer in marijuana. However, a subsequent proposition on the ballot was defeated in November 2010 when the proposition was set to make California the first state to legalize marijuana for recreational use. Proposition 19 lost by a slim margin when 53% of voters said “no” to legalizing recreational use. Since 2010, other states have stepped up and legalized marijuana for recreational use including Washington and Colorado in 2012 and Alaska, Oregon, and the District of Columbia in 2014. So how did California go from being the pioneer for marijuana to being the laggard who is attempting to catch up?

The political landscape is completely different regarding recreational marijuana than it was six years ago. Imagine the skepticism that voters faced when going to the polls and wondering what it would be like if California legalized marijuana. Would there be rampant crime in the streets? Would public morality disintegrate into thin air? Would women and children be harassed by stoned potheads on the street? California ultimately voted “no,” but that did not stop other states from stepping in.

When Colorado and Washington became the first states to legalize recreational marijuana, the whole country sat back and thought to themselves, “Well, this should be interesting.” The idea was finally put into action, and Colorado and Washington became the country’s guinea pig for recreational marijuana; and low and behold, not much changed.

Well, some things changed, and most notably the tax revenue from recreational cannabis had politicians and even skeptics paying attention. In 2015, Colorado pulled in 135 million dollars of tax revenue (almost a billion dollars in sales for the state in 2015), and Washington pulled in $70 million dollars in sales (also close to a billion dollars in sales for 2015). It is not surprising that three other states followed suit, and now California is hoping to get in on the game.

Supporters of Proposition 64 (also called the Adult Use of Marijuana Act or AUMA for short) have a lot to smile about for this go-around for recreational marijuana. Recent polls have shown that more Californians support legalizing than oppose. This is all thanks in part to shifting views of recreational marijuana in different demographics. Support among registered Republicans has increased by double digits since 2010, while Democrats have increased support by seven percent. Whites have increased their support by eight points, while older Californians (most likely Baby Boomers) have increased support by ten percent as well. Latinos, while still not a majority of Latinos, have increased support by five points as well.

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So why does California see a shifting change now as opposed to just six years ago? Well for starters, the success of Washington and Colorado may have something to do with it. Once a state went out on a limb and became the guinea pig, other states were able to sit back and take notes and learn from the experiment. Second, money talks;it is as simple as that. Once people saw the enormous windfalls in revenue from recreational marijuana, it was only a matter of time until more cash-strapped states looked to start their own “green rush.”

But the money is one thing that has supporters nervous about Proposition 64 passing this time. The AUMA proposes a $9.25 tax per ounce for commercially cultivated cannabis, while also throwing a fifteen percent excise tax on top of that. To really “harsh your buzz,” that is in addition to existing state and local taxes. Supporters fear that such a heavily taxed commodity will not actually stop black market sales, instead, it will increase them even more for users who are looking for cheap options.

The support among more Republican voters is impressive, and can be attributed to one theory. The Republican Party of today (not specifically the Trump Republican party of today), the younger voters, is changing. A Pew Research poll found that 63% young Millennial Republicans favor legalizing marijuana. Moreover, it would make sense that the most drastic move would have to be those from the other side of the aisle. As young Libertarians find shelter in the Republican party, it is becoming increasingly clear that young Republicans are becoming the party seeking to get “big brother” off their backs. One way to do that is to let people toke up.

But with that increased support from Republicans, will the thought of being taxed to the hilt force them to take a stand against more taxation? The mere mention of taxes makes Republicans wince in horror. Will a message of increased taxation cause Republican support to ebb?

Another area of concern, which might seem odd, is how the AUMA also conflicts with current medical marijuana users. The AUMA proposes that using marijuana will be restricted to certain approved areas. This in contrast to the medical marijuana law which allows card holders to smoke in public places where smoking is permitted. Not to mention, those taxes that were mentioned before? Well, the medical marijuana users still have to pay those, but they are exempt only from state and local. How ironic would it be if Proposition 64 was defeated in part by medical marijuana users?

The vote in November is far from a slam dunk for California, but there is plenty of evidence to show that it is headed in the right direction. There are plenty of pitfalls along the way too. Central Valley has decreased support (and Central Valley is a big part of the state). Latinos still have not passed the majority mark in support of the AUMA. Medical marijuana users might hate the new rules and opt to keep the old ones. There are many uncertainties. But California is a big state with a lot of different constituents and a lot of various points of view to address. In trying to address all those points of view, California might create a law that is too burdensome and draconian for any sensible voter to support. If the AUMA becomes a behemoth of regulation and uncertainty, it is a good possibility that legalizing recreational marijuana in California will sustain another failure: missing a golden opportunity for the Golden State.

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