by H.B. Koplowitz
Had California voters approved Proposition 19 in November,
the state would have become the first to legalize, regulate
and tax marijuana for recreational use by adults.
At a time when the state’s unemployment rate is double
digit, and education and social services are being cut
because of budget deficits, the ripple effect from a legal
cannabis/hemp industry could have created thousands of jobs
and generated millions of dollars in tax revenue.
The recreational use of pot, under the guise of medical
marijuana, has been legal in California since voters
approved Prop 215 in 1996. Since then, 13 other states and
the nation’s capital have followed, without any major public
health or law enforcement problems. Yet California voters
rejected legalizing recreational marijuana and treating it
The reason is visceral. Marijuana is less harmful than
alcohol, cigarettes, many prescription drugs, all other
illegal drugs, probably soda pop and possibly the state
lottery. To suggest that marijuana needs more study is like
being a global warming denier.
But marijuana is associated with the hippie movement of the
1960s. It's the D in "sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll." The
fact that it is classified a Schedule 1 drug has little to
do with its inherent risks, and everything to do with who
smoked it. It was the drug of choice for antiwar and civil
rights protesters, and today it's still associated with
"liberals," a word that has become so pejorative that few
people will admit to being one.
Fear of being portrayed as soft on crime is why none of the
major party candidates, and especially the Democrats, have
shown the courage to even be neutral on pot legalization,
much less support it. The same political calculus applies to
the mainstream media. They take enough flack for supporting
a woman's right to choose, gay marriage and a pathway to
citizenship. Why risk the wrath of social conservatives by
going out on a limb for potheads?
Opponents of Prop 19 noted that marijuana is still illegal
under federal law. But so is medical marijuana. Others said
the proposition as written would have resulted in confusing
local ordinances and cumbersome bureaucracy. But local
municipalities regulate and tax bars, strip clubs, casinos,
arcades, guns, tobacco, plastic bags, junk food and all
sorts of other products and businesses all sorts of ways,
and somehow life goes on.
The Chamber of Commerce, which represents liquor
distributors and other competitors to recreational
marijuana, claimed that under Prop 19, business owners would
be unable to stop their employees from getting high at work.
Unlike with alcohol, cocaine and other substances, drug
tests can detect marijuana "in the system" weeks after it
was ingested and its effects have worn off. That's why Prop
19 prohibited firing people -- or arresting them for DUI --
just for testing positive for THC, unless there's also
evidence it's affecting their performance. Just like people
who lit a cigarette, drank a beer or showed up without a
shirt, those who got high at work would still be history.
The fear isn't that marijuana is a gateway drug to harder
stuff, but that it's a gateway to hippiedom. That it robs
people of their initiative and makes them spacy and
apathetic. If conservatives think pot makes liberals
apathetic, why aren't they for legalization? Seriously, like
any recreational pursuit, whether it be drinking, video
games or Facebook, marijuana can be abused. Moderation in
But getting high can also be harmless fun, and any assertion
that legalizing marijuana would create problems ignores all
the problems created by the existing pot prohibition, which
spawns organized crime and turns thousands of otherwise
productive and law-abiding citizens who grow, transport,
sell or possess pot or pot "paraphernalia" into outlaws.
The cannabis industry as it exists today is a lawless,
unregulated, untaxed, underground economy worth billions of
dollars. And like illegal immigrants, it's not going away.
The vote to reject Prop 19 was a vote to keep it that way.
One thing gays and potheads have in common is that both have
lived in the shadows. The difference is that when gays get
outed, they may be bullied or snubbed. People caught with
marijuana don't get outed; they get busted and sent to
overcrowded prisons, ruining their lives and the lives of
their families, and forcing the state to release violent
As with gays and illegal immigrants, it's time marijuana
users be allowed to come out of the shadows, and the
underground marijuana industry be integrated into the