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Pot Initiative

© 2010 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 like alcohol.

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 all things.

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 offenders early.

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 economy.
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