Prop. 19: Legalizing Marijuana

My first in a series of posts about the Nov. 2 California Election. Today I start with the most interesting measure on the ballot: Prop 19.

As of right now, marijuana is illegal in California unless you have a doctor’sProp. 19 Legalization “recommendation.”  Starting Jan. 1, 2011, possession of an ounce or less of marijuana will be downgraded from a misdemeanor to an infraction, with a maximum penalty of $100 and no jail time.  If a majority of voters approve of Proposition 19 on Nov. 2, California law would allow adults to grow, possess, and consume cannabis for personal use.

Proponents argue that the measure will have the following benefits:

1) Stop wasting valuable resources going after recreational cannabis users & growers
2) Increased regulation will enhance safety
3) It’s an opportunity for cash-strapped state and local governments to get an additional revenue stream
4) Will stop making criminals out of otherwise law-abiding citizens. May increase respect for the law and police. Former US Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders expressed support for Prop. 19 for this reason:

“What I think is horrible about all of this, is that we criminalize young people. And we use so many of our excellent resources … for things that aren’t really causing any problems … We have the highest number of people in the world being criminalized, many for non-violent crimes related to marijuana. We can use our resources so much better.”

There are two main cons to Prop. 19:

1) Legalizing marijuana will lead to an increase in casual and heavy marijuana use. Even though the damage from even heavy use  is rather minimal, it still belongs in the con column.
2) Prop. 19 can’t do what it says it will do. California cannot legalize marijuana and it appears the federal government is going to push back if this passes. The federal Controlled Substances Act trumps state laws, and Attorney General Eric Holder announced that Washington will still enforce US drug laws.


RAND Corp. estimates that if Prop. 19 passes, the price of cannabis would drop by 80%, from the current black market price of $300-$450 per ounce, to around $40 an ounce (before taxes).  It appears that taxes won’t get too high because the different localities will be competing for the revenue, so there will be a race to the bottom in setting the excise taxes.  The Board of Equalization estimated that government revenues could be $1.4 billion a year based on $50 an ounce excise tax. I believe this is too generous, especially considering that there is a good chance that the Feds will prevent the commercial sale and taxation aspect of the measure. If the Justice Dept. follows through, the measure’s main impact will be to allow people to grow marijuana for their own use on a 5′ x 5′ plot of land.

Another argument that is being debated is whether or not Prop. 19 will take business away from the drug cartels in Mexico and lead to a reduction in border violence.  However, according to RAND’s analysis, California legalizing cannabis will lead to a revenue loss to cartels of only 2%-4%. Unless other states follow CA’s lead, there will be minimal impact on cartel violence.

I agree with Kevin Drum’s belief that Prop. 19 is exciting because it will cause “fireworks” between the state and federal government that may ripple throughout the country. It’s time to push this debate further.

Right now, Intrade gives Prop. 19 a 60% chance of passing. Expect more updates as the election gets closer.

How are you voting Nov. 2?

P.S. Great line from NY Times article: “The smell of marijuana is hardly unusual at outdoor concerts at places like the Hollywood Bowl.”


3 responses to “Prop. 19: Legalizing Marijuana

  1. I voted by mail yesterday and confidently voted in favor of legalizing marijuana. I actually don’t enjoy being around it at all – I’m allergic to the stuff. However, the fiscal benefits for the state are enormous and there is almost no downside to its legalization. At it’s simplest it will provide more than 1 billion per year in tax revenue not to mention the decreased criminal justice system costs.

  2. Pingback: Policy Potluck

  3. Pingback: Election Day 2010: Propositions 25-27 | Policy Potluck

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