The green print

What does roadmap for legalizing pot mean for recreational weed on the 2016 ballot?

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A widely praised report on pot legalization in California released last week warns that recreational weed in the state won’t necessarily mean more green for its financial coffers.

The report, by the Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom-led Blue Ribbon Commission on Marijuana Policy, is a 93-page opus nearly two years in the making. The hype was that it would be a blueprint for legalizing pot in California. But now that the smoke has settled—experts and pot interests have had a few days to actually read and dissect the document—one thing is clear: Legalizing pot has dozens of moving parts, and, little surprise, some will never agree on how to greenlight bud in the Golden State.

In fact, the only consensus now among cannabis stakeholders is that legalization won’t, and shouldn’t, be about the almighty dollar.

“This isn’t going to be a cash cow for the state,” said Brian McGuigan of ReformCA. “It’s not going to solve all our budget woes.”

ReformCA is the leading contender to get an initiative to legalize pot on the ballot in 2016. There are, as of deadline, five other possible ballot measures in the mix. And some say there likely will be more before the attorney general’s October deadline to submit ballot language. But only ReformCA has retained a signature-gathering outfit to help. They’ve also performed significantly more outreach than the other groups, says McGuigan.

ReformCA and even most old-school pot advocates generally support the findings of Newsom’s commission.

Dale Gieringer, a Stanford University Ph.D. who heads the California chapter of the National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws (NORML), said that, even though there “weren’t a lot of surprises” in the lieutenant governor’s report, he was nevertheless “pleasantly surprised” by the committee’s research and analysis.

“We think it’s a good report, and we definitely are paying close attention to it,” said Gieringer, who also supports ReformCA’s initiative effort.

But some pot activists question whether the Blue Ribbon Commission discovered anything new. Jason Collinsworth, with the California Bipartisan Decriminalization of Cannabis Act—one of the six initiatives vying to qualify for the ballot—says he was disappointed by Newsom’s findings.

“Honestly, what it all boils down to is a little bit of a waste of time and taxpayers’ money,” he told the News & Review. He says the group didn’t “truly consult the medical-cannabis community” and called a great deal of the findings “out of touch.”

It’s worth noting that the cannabis community has a rich history of being divided on flagship issues (most notably in 2010, when Proposition 19’s legalization initiative failed to pass and drew significant criticism from the anti-prohibitionist bloc). That said, critics of the commission appear to be the minority.

McGuigan with ReformCA called the report an “extremely credible, well-thought-out and timely analysis of how to legalize cannabis in California.”

When one peeks inside the report, the complexity of legalization emerges from the smoke. It begins with a warning that the commission does not endorse legalization. There is, however, some semblance of a road map to recreational pot.

The impetus for the report, back when Newsom kicked it off in October 2013, was that an increasing number of Californians supported the idea of legal weed. In turn, the commission did outreach all over the state—town halls, meetings, testimony, etc.—and finally crafted an analysis of legal marijuana’s potential benefits and red flags.

The first point is that legalization will be a process, not a moment or event. The report says that people will need to engage the issue for years to ensure protections for public health, keep the black market at bay, cooperate with old-school pot-industry stakeholders, and capture the millions of tax dollars this new industry surely will generate.

Protecting young people and public safety get the commission’s foremost attention. But there’s also a focus on protecting the environment from the impacts of marijuana cultivation and production, and also the decriminalization of pot and its impact on “racial and economic disparities.”

In total, the commission makes a whopping 58 recommendations for California policymakers.

NORML’s Gieringer says the biggest challenge for pot in California will be ensuring that the state’s forefathers—industry operators such as the cultivators who’ve worked in the shadows for decades—have a stake in the Golden State pot economy.

“It’s a serious worry,” he explained. “What we’ve been trying to do is take an illegal market, and take the people who’ve been into it, and get them legal. California has thousands of growers, generations worth of growers … many of whom have wanted to do so legally. It’s important that they get into the legal market.”

He says that, in some states, there are only handfuls of approved legal medical-pot growers, and they pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to get in the game. It’s a pay-to-play situation that’s priced out many cannabis pioneers.

Try that in California, he says, and it will simply perpetuate the illegal market. “If you do this [in California], all those people are going to get shut out—and then you’re going to have as many illegal growers afterward as you did beforehand.”

And there’s so much marijuana in this state already, Gieringer reminded. “We don’t really need any new big marijuana plantations in California. We’re exporting as it is.”

In the end, it’ll likely come down to money.

Even though stakeholders downplay the impact, all of this marijuana will certainly bring in new revenue. Licensing fees for growers and sellers, fines, taxes—the money will be flowing in ways the state has never experienced. The amount of money generated will be minuscule compared with California’s $100 billion general fund, but it could amount to several hundred-million dollars annually.

Gieringer says he feels that the time is right for legal pot in California. “I just sense that the public attitude is right, that an intelligently written initiative will pass,” he said. Short of a huge influx of capital to the opposition, he’s confident.

McGuigan with ReformCA would not disclose any internal polling, but a Public Policy Institute of California poll from March of this year showed that a slight majority of Californians think pot should be legal (53 percent).

He also warned, however, that California will be a different beast compared with the efforts in Colorado and Washington.

“You’ve seen other states go ahead and legalize it. But those states are very different than California—the size of the states, the diversity,” he explained.

“We feel that voters are inclined to vote for this … but it’s not going to be a slam dunk.”