Election may be a turning point for legal marijuana

To the red-and-blue map of U.S. politics, it may be time to add green.
Ian Almerico carries a tray of cannabis clones at Harborside, a medical marijuana dispensary in Oakland, Calif., on Oct. 20. Opinion polls are showing five states, including California and Massachusetts, may vote to legalize recreational marijuana on E...
Ian Almerico carries a tray of cannabis clones at Harborside, a medical marijuana dispensary in Oakland, Calif., on Oct. 20. Opinion polls are showing five states, including California and Massachusetts, may vote to legalize recreational marijuana on E...

To the red-and-blue map of U.S. politics, it may be time to add green. The movement to legalize marijuana, the country’s most popular illicit drug, will take a giant leap on Election Day if California and four other states vote to allow recreational cannabis, as polls suggest they may.

The map of where pot is legal could include the entire West Coast of the United States and a string of states reaching from the Pacific Ocean to Colorado, raising a stronger challenge to the federal government’s ban on the drug.

In addition to California, Massachusetts and Maine both have legalization initiatives on the ballot next month that seem likely to pass. Arizona and Nevada are also voting on recreational marijuana, with polls showing Nevada voters evenly split.

The passage of recreational marijuana laws in Alaska, Colorado, Oregon and Washington over the past four years partly unlocked the door toward eventual federal legalization. But a yes vote in California, which has an economy the size of a large industrial country’s, could blow the door open, experts say.

“If we’re successful, it’s the beginning of the end of the war on marijuana,” said Gavin Newsom, the lieutenant governor of California and a former mayor of San Francisco. “If California moves, it will put more pressure on Mexico and Latin America writ large to reignite a debate on legalization there.”

The market for both recreational and medicinal marijuana is projected to grow to $22 billion in four years from $7 billion this year if California says yes, according to projections by the Arcview Group, a company that links investors with cannabis companies.

“This is the vote heard ‘round the world,” said Arcview’s chief executive, Troy Dayton. “What we’ve seen before has been tiny compared to what we are going to see in California.”

And yet scholars who have studied these legalization measures say that to a large extent they are very much a shot in the dark, a vast public health experiment that could involve states that hold 23 percent of the U.S. population — and generate a quarter of the country’s economic output — carried out with relatively little scientific research on the risks. In addition, there are 25 states that already permit medical marijuana.

To hear proponents of legalization in California tell it, a yes vote here would allow the same benefits seen in Colorado — a sharp reduction in drug arrests and a large increase in tax collection — but on a scale many times larger.

After years of resistance, proponents say their long-sought goal is finally within reach.

“My ultimate objective is to get this plant into the hands of every single human being on the planet who needs it — and in my view that’s everybody,” said Steve DeAngelo, the founder of Harborside, a medical marijuana dispensary in Oakland that bustles with clients taking advantage of a medical marijuana law that has been in place for two decades.

“It’s almost a religious, spiritual thing,” DeAngelo said. “Mother Nature gave us this healing plant.”

Obtaining a quarter-ounce of marijuana in San Francisco, once the symbol of the city’s illicit counterculture, would be as easy as ordering a pizza, a manifestation of the partnership between the tech industry and medical marijuana business.

But the wave of legalization would strain an already uneasy truce between states and a federal government that still classifies marijuana as among the most harmful drugs. States that legalize marijuana are taxing and regulating an activity that the federal government, especially the drug enforcement authorities, have prosecuted at home and abroad for decades.

Legalization would also further transform parts of the California countryside into pot-growing farms; and it would legitimize and perhaps help consolidate an industry that once out of the shadows will likely have the same lobbying power as tobacco and alcohol companies.

According to Marijuana Business Daily, a trade publication, the recreational marijuana industry would be larger than the wine industry if use was legalized nationwide.

The enthusiasm for pot legalization — 57 percent of Americans believe it should be legal — has spurred experts to push back against what they say is a widespread public perception that marijuana is a mild drug and less harmful than tobacco or alcohol.

Jennifer Tejada, the chairwoman of the law and legislative committee of the California Police Chiefs Association, said she is not against legalization but argues that the measure is ill thought out.

California should first develop laws to determine when a marijuana user is too impaired to drive, she said.

“It’s like putting a 12-year-old behind the wheel of a car and saying, ‘Go for a drive! Let’s study the safety issues later,’” she said. “It’s ludicrous.”

Proponents cite the tens of thousands of marijuana arrests in recent years as a powerful reason for legalization. But Tejada said the police in California no longer make arrests for possession or use of small amounts.

“Go to any county jail and find someone who is in there for possession of marijuana,” she said. “It hasn’t happened for two decades.”

Stanton Glantz, a professor at the School of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, says marijuana regulations, which were formulated like laws for alcohol, should instead be modeled after the measures passed in recent decades that discourage tobacco use. Cigarette smoke and marijuana smoke have similar harmful chemical profiles, he said.

The ballot initiatives in California and elsewhere are written “in a way to maximize business potential without seriously considering the public health impact,” Glantz said. Legalization lowers arrests, but “this is exchanging a criminal justice crisis for a public health crisis,” he said.

A number of recent studies, while acknowledging the limits of research under the federal ban, warn that marijuana’s harmful effects — especially on adolescent development, to the cardiovascular system and to fetuses — have been understated.

A study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry found that marijuana was more addictive than alcohol but less so than tobacco. “The addictiveness of cannabis has been underestimated,” said Jesse Cougle, the lead author. The finding “definitely contradicts a lot of opinions on the topic,” he said. Among weekly users, the study found a 25 percent risk of dependence for marijuana compared with 16 percent for alcohol and 67 percent for tobacco.

Proponents of legalization play down the potential dangers of marijuana, saying generations of Americans have used it in what they describe as a type of real-time experiment for harmful effects. “People die from alcohol every day,” said Adam Bierman, the co-founder and chief executive of MedMen, a cannabis investment firm. “People don’t die from marijuana.”

Data from Colorado, still incomplete, provides a picture of what might be in store for California and other states. A report by the Colorado Department of Public Safety found both a 46 percent drop in the number of marijuana arrests in 2014, the first year commercial marijuana was available, and a rise in marijuana use among young people. It also highlighted a “significant increase” in overall rates of emergency room visits from 739 per 100,000 in the three-year period before legalization to 956 per 100,000 in the first year and a half of legalization.

Newsom, the lieutenant governor of California, concedes that legalizing marijuana has many challenges, among them staving off the prospect of powerful marijuana monopolies and keeping what he termed a “dangerous drug” out of the hands of children.

“It’s on us to prove we can do this responsibly,” he said. “I grant that there are those who don’t believe we are up to it. We have to prove them wrong.”

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