Prop. 19: Is now the time for legal weed in CA? |

Prop. 19: Is now the time for legal weed in CA?

On Nov. 2, campaigns will be won or lost. Weary campaign workers may raise champagne glasses in celebration.

Or, if some polls are right, the slow, smoky spark of a marijuana bowl may replace the quick pop of the cork in California.

Proposition 19’s authors propose to legalize the possession of up to 1 ounce of marijuana for recreational use in the Golden State. If passed, it will mark the first time in living memory any American has been able to smoke legally, without a medical prescription.

The drug would still be illegal on the federal level.

A poll released last week by the Public Policy Institute of California shows legalized marijuana is a possibility in California, with 52 percent of respondents supporting Prop. 19’s passage, and 41 percent opposed.

Proponents say Prop. 19 is a landmark law, shifting law enforcement’s focus and financial resources from what some call a fruitless war on drugs.

Opposition groups say the law is poorly written, leaving a web of questions to entangle local courts – at added expense to taxpayers. Employers could be left wondering whether they can discipline workers found to be under the influence.

Experts differ on the potential effect in Nevada County, where the marijuana industry thrives.

“California’s laws criminalizing marijuana have failed and need to be reformed,” is the way Prop 19, The Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis Act of 2010, begins.

“As a member of the community, the number one reason I’m in favor of it is that we have to do something to start turning around our 40-year policy of prohibition,” said Stephen Munkelt, a Nevada City-based criminal defense lawyer. “In so many ways, the policy of prohibition has created international drug cartels and the operations of criminal gangs in the United States. They would cease to exist without prohibition.”

Legalization won’t solve the problem of cartels, frequently Mexican, from growing their crop on California’s land, but it will strike the first blow against those organizations, he said.

“We have a 40-year policy in place that we’ve imposed in the U.S., but we’ve tried to get other countries to put it in place as well,” Munkelt said. “If we take a first step away from that policy it’s not going to change the world right away, and I certainly don’t see Prop. 19 by itself solving that problem. But, if retail sales of marijuana are authorized in California, then it reduces the incentive for any Californians to be involved in illegal production.”

If marijuana is legalized, prices for the drugs would logically drop, said Nate Bradley, a former Wheatland, Calif., police officer and spokesman for the national Law Enforcement Against Prohibition group, an organization of former police officers who support legalization.

“The way we ended the violence surrounding alcohol during prohibition was to legalize alcohol and take that profit margin away,” Bradley said. “Organized crime had no oxygen anymore.”

That loss of value could be a problem for the established legal, medical marijuana industry currently in Nevada County, said county resident Kristen Day.

“I know several people in Nevada County that rely on growing for patients with prescriptions that can’t do it themselves,” Day said. “And what about those doctors who are writing those prescriptions? They’ll be out of business, too.”

“I will vote in favor,” said Grass Valley resident Jon Peck. ” I think that legalizing it will solve way more problems than it will create. The fact that it is illegal spawns much more criminal behavior.”

“I have mixed opinions. I can see both sides of the story,” said Grass Valley resident Kent Penwarden. “The pros are to reduce the cost to the justice system and to let police deal with more serious matters, but the cons are making drugs more accessible – they’re not doing much good for youth. They ought to separate out three issues; recreational use, plantations by illegal Mexican cartels and medical marijuana.”

“It will have more collateral damage than (its supporters) can ever imagine at this point,” said Nevada County District Attorney Cliff Newell.

He said there are numerous holes in the law, chief among them a provision Newell reads as handcuffing employers into keeping a stoned employee on the job until the drug affects his performance, potentially in a dangerous situation.

Munkelt chuckles at the notion.

“In the statement of intent, marijuana is treated like alcohol is regulated in a community,” Munkelt said. “Employers can’t fire someone because they used alcohol the night before they went to work. That’s how it treats marijuana.”

The law allows each municipality in the state to individually regulate and tax marijuana sales and assesses the marijuana industry as a $15 billion per year business in the state. Local entities won’t see a huge influx in revenue from legalization, though, Newell said.

“Statistics show the social and medical cost of controlled substances like alcohol and tobacco far exceed any tax that’s been put on it,” Newell said. “The problem with this proposition is that it lays out no definitive tax structure, which in some romantic sense might sound good to people who want it regulated at the local level.”

It also lacks specificity in terms of the amount people may possess, Newell said. Though the law clearly allows state residents 21 and older to possess up to an ounce, it is ambiguous in its guidelines for how much people can grow and how they can grow it, he added.

“The law says you can grow in an area that’s 25 square feet,” Newell said. “Does that mean you can grow them in tiers? Is it restricted to a single level? If I’m a defense attorney, you can bet I can argue that means you can grow on multiple tiers.”

He also points to another of the bill’s stipulations, which allows growers to possess in their homes the result of any previous harvests.

“You could have 200 pounds there and profess it’s for personal use,” Newell said. “It’s a bad law.”

He supports the stiff punishments Prop. 19 outlines for selling or distributing marijuana to minors, which is punishable with a $1,000-plus fine and up to 5 years in prison, at its most severe.

The law may not be perfect, but it works to undo serious problems caused by current U.S. drug policy, Munkelt said.

“The war on drugs is the engine driving the erosion of our civil liberties in this country,” Munkelt said. “It is because of illegal drugs that officers can do searches that would have been incomprehensible to our founding fathers.”

To contact Staff Writer Kyle Magin, e-mail or call (530) 477-4239.

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