Drug Law

Why Marijuana Regulation Beats Decriminalization

| by Marijuana Policy Project

Ever since California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a bill decriminalizing possession of up to one ounce of marijuana in the Golden State, opponents of Prop 19 have latched onto this development as their latest (bogus) talking point for why voters should reject the ballot measure on Nov. 2.

Their argument goes something like this: By making possession a civil infraction rather than a misdemeanor, people will no longer be arrested for marijuana possession in California; therefore, one of the main arguments in support of Prop 19 (that it’s wasteful and wrong to arrest adults for using something that’s safer than alcohol) is now moot. “This takes away the last reason why anyone would support Proposition 19,” writes Orange County sheriff Sandra Hutchens and former state Sen. Dick Ackerman in yesterday’s Orange County Register, to cite just one example.

Here’s what the “decriminalization is good enough” argument gets wrong:

  • Police priorities: SB 1449, the decriminalization bill Schwarzenegger signed, doesn’t change the penalty for possessing marijuana (it already was and remains a $100 fine). It simply reclassifies possession as a civil infraction, rather than a misdemeanor that might require a court appearance. In no way does this mean that police will decide to stop wasting their time tracking down low-level marijuana offenders. Instead of 60,000+ marijuana arrests each year, California would simply have 60,000+ marijuana citations. Prop 19 would eliminate the need for either, and compel police to focus on true threats to public safety.
  • Racial disparities: As Hanna Liebman Dershowitz points out in another O.C. Register op-ed countering Hutchens and Ackerman, as long as law enforcement can cite and harass people for possessing marijuana, “the shameless pattern of racially disproportionate enforcement that has been a hallmark of marijuana prohibition” will continue: “[P]olice could still target communities of color and may even be motivated to issue more citations than in the past, since they won’t cost as much under SB 1449. Prop. 19, by contrast, will end futile practices of subjecting otherwise law-abiding consumers to detention, citation and collection of personal data, while wasting law enforcement effort and cost; SB 1449, by contrast, preserves these practices.”
  • Still sold by criminals: Decriminalization takes a step in the right direction by removing criminal penalties for the average marijuana user, but it does nothing to authorize the sale of marijuana and remove it from the hands of criminals and drug cartels (as Prop 19 would). A report issued last week by the International Centre for Science in Drug Policy was emphatic on this point: “Without regulatory controls allowing for limited distribution – as employed for other psychoactive substances such as alcohol and tobacco – organized crime groups continue to exercise control over the cannabis market,” the report states.
  • No tax revenue: On that same note, as long as the sale of marijuana remains outside the rule of law, California and its many localities will be unable to tax that sale and make any revenue from what’s been widely estimated to be the state’s largest cash crop. Decriminalization would contribute little toward collecting the $1.4 billion California’s Board of Equalization estimated the state could make by ending marijuana prohibition.
  • No regulation: Finally, with marijuana decriminalized, and its sale illegal, local governments will be unable to establish regulations dictating how and where marijuana can be sold, who can sell it, and to whom. Under decriminalization, as well as prohibition, there is no system to license or zone vendors, or to require them to check customer IDs. Nor are there any regulations that apply to the product itself. Until marijuana is sold in a legal, regulated market (as it would be under Prop 19), it will still be controlled by drug dealers who offer no quality control, have no legal means to resolve disputes, and have no qualms about selling to people under 21.

The only way to eliminate these harms once and for all is to completely remove marijuana from the criminal justice system and bring its sale under the rule of law – just as Proposition 19 would do in California.

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