By Paul Armentano
Seventy-eight years ago this November, Californians overwhelmingly voted to repeal a morally, socially, and economically failed public policy — alcohol prohibition. Voters did not wait for the federal government to act; they took matters into their own hands.
On Nov. 2, California voters have an opportunity to repeat history and repeal an equally bankrupt public policy — marijuana prohibition.
California lawmakers criminalized the possession and cultivation of marijuana in 1913, some 24 years before Congress enacted similar prohibitions federally. Yet today some 3.3 million Californians acknowledge using pot regularly, and the Golden State stands alone as the largest domestic producer of the crop. Self-evidently, marijuana is here to stay. The question is: What is the most pragmatic and effective way to deal with this reality?
Proposition 19 — which legalizes the adult possession of limited quantities of marijuana in private, and allows local governments to regulate its commercial production and retail distribution — offers voters a sound alternative to the inflexible and failed strategies of the past. The measure acknowledges that adults should not be legally punished for their private use of a substance that is objectively safer than alcohol or tobacco, while simultaneously enacting common sense controls regarding who can legally consume it, distribute it, and produce it.
Critics of Prop. 19 … express concerns that passage of this initiative will lead to increased marijuana use and send a mixed message to children. Both arguments are specious at best.
Virtually any Californian who wishes to obtain or consume marijuana can already do so, and it is unlikely that adults who presently abstain from pot will cease doing so simply because certain restrictions on its prohibition are lifted. Further, it must be acknowledged that unlike alcohol, marijuana is incapable of causing lethal overdose, is relatively nontoxic to healthy cells and organs, and its use is not typically associated with violent, aggressive, or reckless behavior. Why then are we so worried about adults consuming it in the privacy of their own home?
Critics’ concerns regarding marijuana and youth are also not persuasive. Young people already report that they have easier access to illicit marijuana than they do legal beer or cigarettes. Why? It is because the production and sale of these latter products are regulated and legally limited to a specific age group. As a result teen use of cigarettes, for example, has fallen to its lowest levels in decades while, conversely, young people’s use of cannabis is rising. In short, it’s legalization, regulation, and public education — coupled with the enforcement of age restrictions — that most effectively keep mind-altering substances out of the hands of children.
Further, a regulated system of cannabis legalization will make it easier, not harder, for parents and educators to rationally and persuasively discuss this subject with young people. Many parents who may have tried pot during their youth (or who continue to use it occasionally) will no longer perceive societal pressures to lie to their children about their own behaviors. Rather, just as many parents presently speak to their children openly about their use of alcohol — instructing them that booze may be appropriate for adults in moderation, but that it remains inappropriate for young people — legalization will empower adults to talk objectively and rationally to their kids about marijuana.
The Bottom line? For nearly 100 years in California the criminal prohibition of marijuana has fueled an underground, unregulated, black market economy that empowers criminal entrepreneurs while having no tangible effect on the public’s access to pot or their use of it. A “yes” vote on Prop. 19 is a first step toward allowing lawmakers and regulators to seize control of this illegal commercial market and turn it over to licensed business. A “no” vote continues to abdicate command of this market to criminal gangs and drug traffickers.
The choice is up to us.