Why a ‘pot issue’?

Because it’s about a lot more than marijuana

This is the CN&R’s third “pot issue,” and readers may be asking why we’re giving the herb so much space. It’s a good question.

One reason is that marijuana has been much in the news lately, in Chico and elsewhere. Officials all over California have struggled to respond to the emergence of a Prop. 215-fueled army of people eager to open medical-marijuana dispensaries or grow pot in their back yards.

Also, Prop. 215 has created a big mess for local governments to clean up. Watching elected officials twist themselves into knots because of it has become a spectator sport. And the federal government has been as inconsistent as the state on the issue, as Chico city officials know all too well.

Another is that marijuana cultivation has become a huge business in Butte County. We don’t know exactly how much money it brings in because the industry is unregulated, but we know it’s many millions of dollars. Statewide, marijuana cultivation is estimated to be a $14 billion industry.

And of course there are the ever-present Mexican cartels, with their huge plantations in the forests and armed guards. They make no pretense of growing for the medical market.

Some CN&R readers, we know, are interested in the subject because they smoke pot for pleasure, others because they’re sick and it helps them feel better. Still others are interested because they believe the prohibition of pot does more harm than good and is part of a failed “war on drugs” that has cost taxpayers billions, fostered the creation of paramilitary police units, sent hundreds of thousands of nonviolent offenders to prison, and diverted police resources from more serious crimes.

Other readers, I’m aware, follow the news and debate about marijuana with interest tinged with dread. They’ve never used pot, see it as a dangerous drug and worry that medical marijuana is just a legal charade that is part of a general degradation of society due to illicit drugs.

For all of these reasons, and more, marijuana is a subject worthy of special consideration.

My own view is that collectively we’re going through a painful transition in which society is slowly accepting the fact that marijuana prohibition isn’t worth the trouble or expense. Critics of Prop. 215 who say most “patients” aren’t really sick are right, but so what? Young people have been smoking pot for decades. It’s better for them to be able to walk into a store and buy it legally than to flirt with arrest—or worse—by purchasing it on the street.

Most important, liberalization of marijuana laws means that fewer people will go to prison. As of 2008, 31,500 people were in California prisons for drug-related crimes, about 9,000 of them on marijuana charges, out of a total prison population of 171,000. Not only is it expensive to house these prisoners—about $47,000 a year each, according to the Legislative Analyst’s Office—it’s also destructive to lives, the prisoners’ as well as their families’. Reasonable people can debate whether marijuana is bad for them, but almost nobody believes prison is good for anyone.

Robert Speer is editor of the CN&R.