California voters will decide during this November’s election whether to legalize the recreational use of marijuana with Proposition 64. Medical marijuana has been legal in California since 1996 and in the past two decades, the industry around it has grown exponentially. California is one of the largest economies in the world and a prognosticator of social trends within the United States. In the column Will California Go Green?, we are speaking to experts and commentators on the likelihood of Proposition 64 passing and what it could potentially mean for the state and the country.
Amanda Chicago Lewis is a national reporter at Buzzfeed News based in Los Angeles. She specializes in pieces about marijuana and drugs in the United States. As she says, “Cannabis sits at the intersection of a lot of really important things that I am interested in. In addition to cannabis itself, I’m also covering racial politics, social justice issues, policy, business, science, medicine, and culture. It’s fascinating.”
How likely do you think it is that the Proposition 64 will pass?
It’s pretty likely unless something that vastly changes voter opinion occurs, which is always possible and could happen in the next 30 days or so, if at all. Other than that, I think it’s pretty much a sure thing. But you know, never say never.
What do you think could sway voter opinion at this point?
Looking at the evidence from the past couple of years, if a sense developed among voters that, like in Ohio, this was an initiative meant to benefit a small number of specific people. That’s the only thing that was able to stop legalization there. Just stopping it from passing in November—not it not being implemented—that’s the only thing that could [do it].
What do you mean about it not being implemented?
The vagaries of Sacramento shenanigans are not quite my area of expertise, but I have heard a couple of things could potentially get switched around or altered [in Proposition 64] after the fact. I know that there are at least two sections that explicitly say that the legislature could change parts of them.
If I worked in [Governor Jerry] Brown’s office, or something like that, I would imagine I’d not be very happy about the fact that I took all the time to put [the Medical Cannabis Regulation and Safety Act] together last year, and [Proposition 64] will completely undermine the system that was built. It’s totally possible that a number of legislators and the governor’s office are discussing what they can undo and how as soon as this passes. The details of how that stuff works is not at all my expertise.
What have you heard among the cannabis growing community are the biggest concerns about this legislation if it’s passed?
It is a long initiative. It is not Prop. 215. People have generally not read the entire thing. I would say that within the cultivating community people are very distracted, especially up north, by the fight for licenses and getting all of their stuff in order to get a license under MCRSA and do not really know the details of Prop. 64, or are generally wary of it because they haven’t heard anything positive. Or if they’ve heard anything, it’s been negative. I was living in Humboldt for all of August, so I talked to a whole lot of cultivators up there and spent a good amount of time in the Bay Area as well. I know a lot of cultivators down here, and I think they are more distracted by, “Can we get Los Angeles to even pass an ordinance? And if they do pass an ordinance, will they allow unlimited cultivators? Will they allow delivery? Will they allow non-pre-ICO dispensaries?”
The thing I hear over and over again is, “Yeah, I haven’t heard anything good about that, I guess I should look more into it, but I get the sense that my friends don’t want me to vote for it.” It feels much more important [among cultivators] to transition under the law that already exists.
What type of response to it have you heard from the entrepreneurial side of the industry?
People who got involved in cannabis in 2008 or after, and have a more established business at this point, I would say a lot of those people are very excited about Prop. 64 and fully support it. The longer you’ve been working in cannabis, the less likely you’re excited about Prop. 64, in a very general way. The bigger your business is, the more likely that it is that you support Prop. 64, because that’s the thing that’s going to allow you to have vertical integration, it’s going to allow you to have a much bigger operation than you would under MCRSA.
Then there are people who aren’t involved in cannabis at all, people who are not involved in the industry, who are like, “Yeah, we’re finally going to do this! I’m so excited!” And they’re not aware that MCRSA even happened, so they’re sort of like, “Yeah, we’re going to legalize weed!” They don’t really see the shades of grey between not only MCRSA and Prop. 64, but between one state versus another state versus what we have now. California has the biggest cannabis market in the world, Southern California specifically, and it has the biggest production side in the world, but the userbase is not aware of the realities of what is and is not legal currently, and who is and is not getting fucked over currently. Generally among people who are not wonky about this stuff, there are two options: you have legal weed or you don’t have legal weed. No, there are actually like 7000 options.
Where does this lack of awareness come from? Is that just the nature of people having busy lives and not knowing about all the political issues that affect them? Or have these things not been publicized? Or are these things so murky that they’re too hard to explain?
Look, the biggest population of people who relate to cannabis are people who just smoke cannabis, or vape, or do edibles, or whatever—people who use it, people who are consumers/patients. Among people like that, you probably already think cannabis is legal, because it’s legal for you. You have a piece of paper that says it’s fine for you, and you know there’s something a little bit janky about your doctor, but you’re not like, “This seems like a criminal operation.” You’re like, “Whatever, this is how it works.”
Even if you kind of see headlines in a local paper about what’s going on with raids or whatever, you don’t really understand what’s happening. You go in, you buy it like it’s any other product, and then you leave. You’re fine, you can smoke it, everyone is chill about it. You are fully inoculated from all the risks and issues happening on the supply chain side. You don’t understand that none of this is regulated. You buy something that says cannabis lube, and you’re like, “Sure, I’ll put that in my genitals. Why not?” You’re not like, “That’s a totally unregulated product that somebody could have made in their backyard.” You don’t think about that. You don’t think, “I’m smoking this pot and it’s legal for me. I wonder, if the police knocked on the door of the cultivator who grew this for me, is that person is safe?” You just don’t think about that in the same way that you don’t think about the children in China that are making all your other fucking products. You think about how it gets to you, you don’t think about all the steps before that.
That has also meant there has been such a lack of momentum in order to try and pass regulations or pass an initiative for so many years because consumers/patients/voters are like, “Oh, is there a problem? Everything seems cool for me. If it’s legal for me, everything is working out for me.”
Also what we have now is such a jump from what it previously had been for decades. You’re not meeting a guy in the park or having to deal with your friend’s roommate’s sister who sells weed, or whatever. You feel like, “This is like a store. I give them money and I get my weed.”
I moved here from New York in ’09, and I didn’t really start engaging on cannabis policy and writing about cannabis until around ’11 or ’13. For the first couple years I was here, I was just like, “This is great, this is awesome, we’ve got it figured out. California, weed paradise.” But that’s obviously not the situation.
Are your surprised by how much of the discussion about legalization is now framed in economic terms? The conversation now seems to be boiled down to “This will be great for California’s economy” or “This will be great for entrepreneurs” or “We’ll get so much tax revenue.”
[By] framing cannabis as an economic opportunity, if you’re not developing a bad system, if that’s the thing that’s going to appeal to more conservative politicians, if that’s the thing the got the [Board of Equalization] on board, if that’s what it needs to get people on board, fine. Framing is one thing, but writing the laws in a way that benefit a very small group of people or hurts entire populations of people, I don’t think that’s a good thing. But as a frame, I don’t care. If that’s what people need to hear, then that’s what people need to hear.
The Big Pot boogieman is part fallacy, part not a big deal. I’ve talked to longtime activists who are like, “I can’t wait for there to be corporate pot, that means it’s normalized. It’s going to be like beer—there’s going to be craft producers and there’s going to be Budweiser.” It’s crazy because people are having these conversations who aren’t trained in having conversations about economic models, and therefore it’s sort of all over the place.
Regardless of what economic system get puts together in a regulated market, there will be more tax revenue, because there was borderline zero tax revenue before. At least let’s acknowledge that there are a whole lot of people in Los Angeles who pay taxes for their cannabis businesses, and then their information from the Office of Finance is what gets used to target, raid, prosecute, and harass them. That’s pretty fucked. Those are the people trying to do it legally. Why are we doing it that way? That doesn’t feel very fair.
I’ve talked to Ethan Nadelmann, who runs the Drug Policy Alliance, and other activists who have been doing this for such a long time and doing it because of social justice reasons and doing it so patients have access to something that helps them and is not as addictive or harmful opioids, or are trying to point out that black people are between two and ten times more likely to be arrested or prosecuted for cannabis. They spent so many years thinking and talking and working on those things that they essentially weren’t even thinking about what the economic models should look like. All of a sudden they realized, “Do we need to have a position on what economic model we think legalization should look like?” They kind of decided, “No, we don’t. Our goal is legalization.”
The conversation of what this economic model looks like has been something that only really started becoming relevant two or three years ago, and now is a very important thing. Prop. 64 doesn’t have written into it the exact parcels of land where all the cannabis needs to get grown, so it’s not as egregious or insane as the stuff that got people really upset in Ohio. But it probably is not the version of legalization that many longtime activists were necessarily expecting.