Fact vs. fiction

Analyzing anti-marijuana rhetoric in California’s new era of legalized weed

Jamie Kerr owns 530 Collective, a medical marijuana dispensary in Shasta Lake. She says getting involved in her community and being transparent about her business have helped legitimize 530 Collective—and the entire marijuana industry—in Shasta Lake.

Jamie Kerr owns 530 Collective, a medical marijuana dispensary in Shasta Lake. She says getting involved in her community and being transparent about her business have helped legitimize 530 Collective—and the entire marijuana industry—in Shasta Lake.

Photo courtesy of 530 Collective

In the wake of the end of Prohibition in the 1930s, a conservative church group created Reefer Madness, a film meant to educate parents on the perils of allowing their teenagers to smoke marijuana. The scare tactics were extreme—smoking a joint could lead to (gasp!) murder, promiscuity, insanity! And yet the anti-pot propaganda that filled that film—now a cult classic—came to define the era. Despite decades of progress, albeit slow, toward marijuana legalization, many of those negative stereotypes live on today in one form or another.

Proponents of marijuana legalization have long fought those stereotypes, and that fight is playing out right now in Chico and the rest of California, as local jurisdictions grapple with decisions regarding whether to allow the sale of marijuana in their communities. The conservative-majority Chico City Council, for instance, earlier this month expressed its plan to ban commercial weed altogether, despite a majority of residents having voted in favor of greater access to the drug. It also plans to allow personal gardens only indoors. Rules for medical grows remain unchanged.

The passage of the Medical Cannabis Regulation and Safety Act in 2015 made way for the permitting and taxation of medical marijuana, from plant to patient, and Proposition 64, passed in November 2016, put a lot more in motion. As a voter initiative, it was a clear message to the state—and local jurisdictions—that California wants a legal, organized system for the sale and use of marijuana for recreational use. Butte County residents approved Prop. 64 by a margin of 53 percent to 47 percent. In the city of Chico, that number was higher (61 percent in favor, vs. 39 percent).

The law gives every adult over the age of 21 the right to possess and use a small quantity of marijuana. It also allows for personal gardens. But in its schematics for legalizing commercial cannabis—from growing to manufacturing to transporting to selling—it’s left a lot of discretion to local governments.

And so now the anti-pot lobby is continuing its mission to maintain the status quo as jurisdictions face a deadline of Jan. 1, 2018, by which to decide whether to allow commercial activities related to marijuana. Allowing more access, opponents argue, will lead to, among other things, kids and teens falling prey to pot; increased crime; and more DUI deaths because of people driving while stoned. The issue is compounded by the fact that there is still a differentiation between medical and recreational cannabis, though both share the same deadline (a city could choose to allow medical marijuana for sale but not recreational, for instance).

In Chico, it appears dispensaries and manufacturing facilities are not in the cards. On March 7, the City Council took up the issue and, after a short discussion, Mayor Sean Morgan made a motion to direct City Attorney Vince Ewing to craft an ordinance banning all commercial marijuana activity. It passed 4-3 along party lines (conservatives in favor). A ban is not an anomaly—several other municipalities in the North State and elsewhere have chosen against allowing any commercial activity. With nine months to go before the January deadline, however, Councilman Karl Ory asked a question: Why rush into it? “It’s premature at this point for you to be making a proposal that closes off options without discussions,” he said to Morgan. “Why not have a stakeholder group, open discussion with the [police] chief and others?”

Councilwoman Ann Schwab echoed Ory’s concern. “When we were discussing medical marijuana dispensaries [years ago], we had a series of meetings. We looked at numbers, particular areas, hours, regulations, quantities that could be sold, numbers of dispensaries that could be in the city. There was a lot of careful consideration instead of just saying ‘no.’”

Morgan did not reply to email or phone messages seeking comment for this story. City Manager Mark Orme says he expects the ordinance to come before the council in May.

So, why an outright ban? The CN&R set out to investigate the main arguments for prohibiting the sale of marijuana. What truth lies behind the claims? In the era of Fake News, it’s more important than ever to check one’s sources, and then check ’em again. In researching for this story, the CN&R consulted a mayor whose city will allow cannabis commerce, local law enforcement officials, a marijuana proponent, a dispensary owner and several reputable studies done by experts in the field.

More crime

This is one of Chico Police Chief Mike O’Brien’s main reasons for opposing commercial marijuana in the city. “In my personal experience, over the last several years, I’ve seen more violence associated with marijuana than any other drug,” he said during a recent interview. He clarified: “That’s mostly in terms of home invasion robberies.”

Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey pointed out another reason to be worried about increased crime: “Banks that are federally regulated and insured are reluctant to work with dispensaries. They don’t want to be accomplices.

“They [the dispensaries] would have to continue to use the cash economy. Large amounts of cash are always a draw to the criminal element.”

While many law enforcement agencies throughout the U.S. have expressed the same worry, studies in this area are few and reveal mixed results.

O’Brien was also quick to say that while proponents of Prop. 64 claim that regulation will curb the black market, that hasn’t been the case in states where marijuana sales are already legal. He’s right, to an extent. Last year, an editor at The Economist wrote about challenges states have faced after legalization. Among them is the black market. Tom Wainwright found that in Colorado, 70 percent of pot sales were being made legally, while in Washington, only about 30 percent were above board. The reason, he surmised, was that Colorado’s taxes were lower and their regulations less strict. (Colorado’s tax rate was 28 percent, while Washington’s was 44 percent.)

Taxes are a concern for Jamie Kerr, owner of 530 Collective, a medical marijuana dispensary that opened in 2009 in Shasta Lake. “I would caution cities about setting their tax number too high. Because we ultimately pass that tax onto the consumer. There is a point where people will divert to the black market if taxes are too high.”

Turns teens into potheads

Marijuana is legal only for adults who are of drinking age. Just like a bar asks for ID or a convenience store cards those buying cigarettes, dispensaries likewise will be required to sell only to those over 21.

“Lest you think nobody’s selling your kids pot right now,” said Jessica MacKenzie, spokeswoman for the Inland Cannabis Farmers’ Association (ICFA), “they are. But it’s black market. Kids try to steal booze all the time, and we know how to handle that. Booze is the same thing—and we don’t ban booze; we regulate the bejesus out of it.”

Furthermore, Colorado has released statistics showing that marijuana use among teenagers has remained unchanged since before legalization.

It’ll increase DUI deaths

Chico Police Chief Mike O’Brien says he’s worried that sales of marijuana would lead to higher addiction rates and more crime related to pot.

Photo by Meredith J. Cooper

“I’ve seen the impacts of that drug in DUI collisions and fatalities,” O’Brien said. (He did not reply to a request for statistics related to marijuana-related DUIs.)

Many opponents of legalized marijuana, particularly law enforcement agencies, point to studies that indicate that the prevalence of fatal crashes that involved a driver who tested positive for THC—the main psychoactive element in pot—increased after legalization.

One anti-64 TV ad posted on YouTube shows a crash scene and the words “fatalities doubled.” It cites a study by the American Automobile Association Foundation for Traffic Safety, which analyzed data from crashes in Washington state before and after pot legalization. Others refer to it similarly. What they don’t mention, however, are the many disclaimers listed in the study. For instance, it covers 2010-14 (weed was made legal in Washington in 2012) and only includes data for drivers blood-tested for THC. The frequency of blood-testing, however, increased from 2010 (1 in 4 were tested; 53 drivers were positive) to 2014 (nearly all were tested; 108 were positive). The study also did not include other substances in the drivers’ systems, including alcohol.

Another criticism of Prop. 64 is that it does not designate a THC level at which a driver would be considered impaired. Colorado and Washington have set that level at 5 nanograms; in other states, including California, impairment is judged by officer observation.

Environmental decay

This argument deals with cultivation, which is legal—with restrictions—in the city of Chico for medical use and now, with Prop. 64, for personal use as well (up to six plants per residence). The city plans to limit recreational grows to indoors. Which means high electric bills.

“In terms of energy consumption, to do indoor lighting properly, it will take almost enough to power a three- bedroom apartment. That’s not an effective use of resources,” said MacKenzie, who emphasized that she does not advocate for home grows, but rather for dispensaries. “Plus, if you’re doing it behind closed doors, many people will not do things correctly if it costs time or money.”

When it comes to commercial growing, which the city plans to ban, the state holds those cultivation sites to a higher standard, as they will be required to obtain a permit to operate under the law. A recent ICFA meeting attended by representatives of the state Water Resources Control Board highlighted the strict guidelines for commercial grows.

“There is greater pollution coming from other industries,” environmental scientist Trey Sherell told the group. “The state intends to make the cannabis industry the cleanest, greenest, most well-regulated industry in California.”

Moreover, local jurisdictions have the power to implement more stringent guidelines than the state.

“Localities are a lot more empowered than they think,” said Kerr, the Shasta Lake dispensary owner. “They sometimes assume, ‘If we permit this, we’ll have to take whoever we get.’ But they can set the bar pretty high for themselves.”

“Our cultivation in Shasta Lake is only going to be allowed in a warehouse,” Kerr added. “While indoor is not as sustainable, it’s more attractive because it’s out of sight, easier to secure, and easier to implement odor control. In Chico, that might not be as desirable. But they could say, ‘You must source 50 percent of your energy from renewables.’ That’s what I mean by cities not realizing they’re empowered.”

Creates addicts

Cannabis is fun. Or it’s therapeutic. Or both. This is no secret. It wouldn’t be so desirable if it had no benefits. It’s also long been considered an illegal substance by the federal government, though some states disagree with that designation.

About 19.8 million people in the United States reported having used marijuana in 2013 (up from 14.5 million in 2007), according to the National Institute on Drug Addiction (NIDA). That same year, 4.2 million Americans “met clinical criteria for dependence or abuse of marijuana.”

O’Brien expressed concern regarding an increase in marijuana abuse should commercial activities be made legal. “I’m concerned about community well-being,” he said, “in relation to people developing drug addictions. So, do I think pot shops would be good for our community? No.” Despite the fact that marijuana is not widely regarded as being addictive—the way, say, heroin, methamphetamine and alcohol are—O’Brien believes there is cause to worry. “Some people develop, on some level, a psychological need for it,” he said. “Plus, the potency today—it’s not my generation’s pot. They have the ability to make it more potent.”

While a portion of the population consumes marijuana as medicine—it has been well-documented to treat ailments such as chronic or short-term pain, nausea, insomnia, epilepsy and post-traumatic stress disorder—another portion uses it for recreation.

The same can be said of prescription painkillers like Vicodin, Norco, morphine and Oxycontin, prescribed for pain but sold on the black market and proven to be highly addictive. In 2015, 2 million Americans ages 12 and older suffered from opioid addiction, according to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, a group of more than 4,000 physicians, clinicians, counselors and other addiction specialists dedicated to improving addiction treatment in the U.S. In addition, 591,000 abused heroin, which is related to opioids—and cheaper and easier to find in many cases. About 276,000 of the 2 million abusers were 12-17 years old. That year, there were 20,101 overdose deaths related to prescription painkillers, and 12,990 heroin overdose deaths.

In contrast, an overdose of marijuana has not been found to be lethal. NIDA says on its website, answering a question about overdosing on marijuana: “If you mean can they overdose and die from marijuana—the answer is no, it’s not very likely. But they can experience extreme anxiety (panic attacks) or psychotic reactions (where they lose touch with reality and may become paranoid). And people can and do injure themselves because of marijuana’s effects on judgment, perception and coordination.”

A lot of research has been done in recent years regarding the link between marijuana and prescription drugs, and which is preferable. A University of Georgia report released in July 2016 compared use of prescription drugs and marijuana among recipients of Medicare Part D in states where medical cannabis is legal.

Their findings: “National overall reductions in Medicare program and enrollee spending when states implemented medical marijuana laws were estimated to be $165.2 million per year in 2013. The availability of medical marijuana has a significant effect on prescribing patterns and spending in Medicare Part D.”

Jessica MacKenzie, head of the Inland Cannabis Farmers’ Association, advocates for dispensaries over personal grows, saying that in a dispensary everything is labeled and must adhere to mandated guidelines.

CN&R file photo

When it came to opioids in particular, the researchers found that doctors in the 17 states where medical marijuana was legal prescribed 1,826 fewer doses of painkillers per year. In addition, there were fewer prescriptions for drugs to treat depression, seizures, sleep disorders, anxiety and nausea.

O’Brien is skeptical, sticking to the federal drug schedule as the law of the land. (As a Schedule I drug, marijuana is considered, federally, to have high abuse potential, no medical use and to pose serious safety concerns.) “If that’s the way society is going to go, there needs to be some mechanism to have the drug actually prescribed rather than recommended,” he said.

No economic benefit

Based on financial data out of Colorado and other states that have legalized recreational marijuana, it’s an economic boon. So why this argument that it won’t make any money? Many suggest that the taxes written into Prop. 64—which are expected to reach $1 billion annually—won’t benefit local economies.

Here’s why: An excise tax of $9.25 per ounce of flowers and $2.75 per ounce of leaves is written into the law. In addition, there is a 15 percent state tax on retail sales. That money will be deposited into the California Marijuana Tax Fund and initially used to cover the cost of administration and enforcement. Beyond that, it will go to programs for medical cannabis research, policy review of Prop. 64 (to the tune of $10 million annually allocated to public universities), study of driver impairment and substance abuse treatment.

But local governments can levy their own taxes. True, they must be approved by a two-thirds vote of the people, but these taxes have passed in many jurisdictions in states where marijuana is legal. As an example, Shasta Lake voters approved a 6 percent sales tax on medical marijuana collectives in 2014. Last year alone, the three collectives there generated more than $400,000, according to the city website.

“That’s a very significant amount,” Mayor Richard Kern said in a phone interview.

The website explains: “[S]ince January 2015, these businesses have contributed $859,450 in gross receipts tax revenue while employing approximately 30 full-time employees in well-paying jobs. With the additional revenue, the City was able to add one full time Deputy Law Enforcement Officer, and fund $50,000 towards the Business Incentive Improvement Program to assist existing businesses with improving the façade of their business.”

With Prop. 64, Shasta Lake anticipates revenue to grow with the addition of licenses and permits for cultivation, manufacturing and other marijuana-related businesses. The city recently hired a consulting firm to work out the best scenarios for regulating all aspects of commercial marijuana, including adding a tax on cultivation.

“So far, the ordinances and legal processes are going good,” Kern said. “But illegal [activity] is still a big problem. Getting a budget for that is really hard. That’s why we’re proposing a [new] cultivation tax to increase the number of enforcement officers we have so we can put some real teeth into the laws that we’ve passed.”

Pot shops on every corner

This is only true if the City Council wants it to be. The city of Shasta Lake, for instance, has set zoning regulations that limit not only where dispensaries can be located but also how close they can be to one another—they must be separated by at least 900 feet. Shasta Lake also has set a limit on the number of dispensaries it will allow—only three.

It’s illegal federally, so it’s illegal here

This is a go-to argument against allowing marijuana, medical or otherwise, in the state. And Chief O’Brien was quick to jump on it, naming it first on his list of reasons he opposes allowing commercial cannabis.

“Federal law has never been changed. As police officials, that makes us uncomfortable,” he said. “The conflict between federal and state law—that’s problematic.”

District Attorney Ramsey doesn’t agree, despite having consistently spoken out against marijuana—most notably in 2010, when the eight medical marijuana dispensaries that were then in operation in Butte County were raided, prosecuted and ultimately shut down. “Generally, storefront collectives are illegal because you can’t sell marijuana,” Ramsey said back then.

Things have changed, he told CN&R during a recent interview. With laws on the books allowing commercial activity related to both medical and recreational marijuana, he has no problem with municipalities in his jurisdiction regulating such enterprises.

“At that point [in 2010], the federal government had been looking at us. I spoke personally with the U.S. attorney,” he said, referring to a crackdown by the Department of Justice on local governments that passed laws allowing dispensaries. Then-Mayor Schwab received a letter threatening a lawsuit against her and anyone else who would pass or enforce a law allowing sales of marijuana, as the federal government categorized dispensaries.

During the City Council’s March 7 meeting, Councilwoman Schwab recalled that incident with a note of concern. “I don’t want to be sued, and I don’t want anybody else to get sued,” she said.

Ramsey doesn’t seem to be worried about that, though he did caution that the Trump administration could change things. (He added, however, that there aren’t any U.S. attorneys right now, as they all got fired, so he’s heard no whispers of anything happening on that front anytime soon.)

“They [the feds] backed off,” he said. “It’s going to be a whole new ballgame come this January, [when] the law will allow someone to have a dispensary.”

Kern, Shasta Lake’s mayor, says he believes in listening to the voice of the people—the voters who approved Prop. 64—and making smart, well-researched decisions. “Look deeply into your options that you currently have,” he said as a message to cities, including Chico, that are currently in discussions. “Remember, the state has not set all its rules and regulations yet. What you want to do in your community is really up to you, but I would advise you to look very closely at what you can do.

“You can choose to ban it,” he added. “But there are two things that are going to happen. First, get ready for the lawsuits. Because you’re going to be sued. And you’ll have to deal with the expenses of that. And then get ready to finally give in and let it run. You can save yourself a whole lot of money in lawsuits by taking the time now to get your ducks in a row.”