California voters will decide this November whether the state should legalize the growth and sale of marijuana, with profits going to help local municipalities balance their budgets. Supporters say the proposition would allow for better regulation of the drug, while opponents say it would increase usage.
Larry Mantle talked to experts from both sides during a panel at KPCC’s Crawford Family Forum.
There are plenty of unresolved debates about the effects of marijuana, as well as the industry around its already-legal use for medicinal purposes. But, more fundamentally, panelists disagreed on how the issue of drug legalization should be framed.
Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, a strong opponent of the measure, said that it didn’t provide for adequate regulation. His main objection, though, was a philosophical one.
“It’s like releasing an oil spill in your own brain,” he said. “It may not catch you at the initial point, but if you just keep on pouring into your system, you’re taking away the spiritual divinity of your brain, and you’re essentially establishing that you don’t value the truth that your brain is your most precious resource. Keep it as healthy as you can... it’s a theological and moral point.”
John Russo, Oakland’s city attorney, said he personally agreed with Baca, but supports the measure on practical grounds.
“That’s a very deep question that goes to the values of the society,” he said of drug addiction. “I’m looking at this, putting aside my personal views, in a very pragmatic way, which is, you’re looking at a failed policy. What we have done doesn’t work, any more than prohibition of alcohol worked in the ‘20s.”
Jim Gray, a retired Superior Court of Orange County judge, agreed. Marijuana is California’s largest cash crop, he said, and jails are full of prisoners convicted on charges of possession of marijuana.
“Let’s understand, then, that it’s here to stay,” he said. “Let’s stop moralizing about it and start managing the issue.”
Both sides also disagreed on whether legalization would help or hurt public health. Baca said that while he supported medical marijuana, he worried that further relaxing restrictions would increase marijuana consumption.
“I deal with the consequences of addictive behavior – that’s really what I’m against,” he said. “The cost of the addiction, even if it’s legal, are going to be more traffic accidents, more people who will become unbalanced mentally.”
Pointing to Portugal, which decriminalized marijuana usage, Russo said he thought the new law would encourage addicts to seek help.
“It’s a medical issue. It’s a health care issue,” he said. "Bring people closer to medical professionals that can help them, instead of, like we do, make them criminals and push them farther away. It works in Portugal. It will work here too.”
Mark Kleiman, a professor of public policy and the director of the Drug Policy Analysis Program at UCLA, said that while Portugal and other countries, including the Netherlands, have allowed usage, California would be the first place to make the growth of marijuana legal. He said the vote is simply a choice between the lesser of two evils.
“I literally don’t know how I’m going to vote on the initiative,” he said. “We’ve got two appalling alternatives. We can wake up the day after Election Day, discovering that the voters even of California have decided to listen to the drug warriors one more time, and support the current drug war situation. That would be appalling. Or we could discover that the voters of California have, for the third time running, voted for a completely nonsense initiative, put together by the drug legalization movement, and that would be disgraceful.”
He called the measure a "nonsense initiative," he said, because if it were passed, California law would still conflict with federal law banning marijuana use and consumption. Anyone who paid a tax on it would be confessing to a federal felony, he said.
Gray said he didn’t think Washington would crack down on the law.
“The Obama administration has acknowledged one of the strong philosophical planks of our Constitution, namely the concept of federalism,” he said. “And I have no doubt that he is going to, once we pass this, maybe say it was silly, maybe we were duped, but he’s going to let us do it, and then it’s going to work. He will not challenge the voters of California – that’s a red herring.”
With months before the election, the proposition’s outlook is still hazy. But a poll taken in May by USC and the L.A. Times showed Californians reasonably positive on the measure, with 49 percent of registered voters supporting it, 41 percent opposed, and 10 percent still uncertain.