California's Reefer Madness

The Golden State is flat broke, but all anybody there wants to talk about is legalizing and taxing marijuana. Joe Mathews on how vital reforms are going up in smoke.

Leon Neal, AFP / Getty Images

California, broke and dysfunctional, desperately needs a white-hot public debate over how to fix its budget, its economy, and its state constitution.

What the state may get instead is a white-hot public debate over marijuana.

In a state where democracy is direct and voters rule, such debates take place via ballot initiative. So the next great opportunity to do something about the state’s troubles comes in the November 2010 general elections. With long lead times for filing initiatives and gathering the signatures needed to qualify, that ballot is just now beginning to take shape. The early outlook is worrisome.

“Taxing marijuana is easy to understand,” says one political consultant. “Constitutional reform isn’t. I think everyone will be completely confused by the reforms.”

Although reformers of all ideological stripes are planning major efforts to reshape how California governs itself, the only potential measure generating any political heat is a proposed initiative to legalize and tax the sale of cannabis.

Marijuana has the momentum. This week, Oakland voters approved a marijuana tax in their city by an overwhelming 80 to 20 percent margin. City councils in Los Angeles and other municipalities are considering whether to follow suit. The state’s nominally Republican governor says it’s time to debate the idea. Jokes about taxing marijuana in California are showing up in late-night comedy monologues. (Conan O’Brien recently spoofed a TV ad supporting the legalize-and-tax bill).

A Field Poll this spring found that 56 percent of California voters surveyed support the idea of taxing marijuana. Even in the midst of its worst budget and cash crisis since the Great Depression, a tax-and-legalize weed bill in the California legislature—a bill which has almost no hope of passing given the opposition of law enforcement—has drawn extensive coverage. Assuming the legislature fails to approve the legislation, the moment may be right for an initiative in 2010.

“That’s my feeling,” says James J. Clark, a Bay Area criminal defense lawyer who represents people accused of marijuana crimes and who, along with two other lawyers, filed an initiative with the attorney general’s office earlier this month. “There is a debate about whether to put an initiative forward in 2010 or 2012. I think we should capitalize on this media attention. There really is a groundswell.”

Interest is so intense that, if a marijuana initiative qualifies for a ballot next year, it could become a significant political problem for the good-government groups that have been plotting a series of reform initiatives for the same ballot. These well-funded efforts run the gamut. The Bay Area Council, a business-backed policy organization, is preparing measures to ask voters to call a constitutional convention. California Forward, a new body with strong foundation backing, appears likely to back a series of initiatives to shake up the state’s budget and politics. Powerful unions are preparing initiatives to reform education funding and roll back the state’s requirement of a two-thirds vote to raise taxes. Conservative groups are readying proposals to reduce pension obligations and put new restrictions on legislatures.

The challenge for such reform measures is that they are complicated and highly technical. To win, the sponsors of these initiatives will need to be able to grab and hold the public’s attention. But a marijuana initiative could soak up much of that attention—and in the process make it next to impossible to educate voters about reforms. Last weekend, in an early sign of the coming contest, stories about the possibilities of marijuana legalization led the Southern California news, even as advocates of a state constitutional convention held two town halls here to drum up support for the idea.

(Full disclosure: My employer, a think tank called the New America Foundation, was one of the town halls’ sponsors, though I personally have written critically of the idea of a constitutional convention.)

“I think marijuana is one of those hot-button issues that would dominate the discussion and the election,” says Fiona Hutton, a top political consultant who is a veteran of major initiative campaigns but is not involved in the marijuana issue. California, she notes, has a history of campaign cycles in which social-issue initiatives—such as a stem-cell-research measure in 2004 or animal protection and same-sex marriage initiatives in 2008—eclipse good-government measures.

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“Taxing marijuana is easy to understand,” Hutton says. “Constitutional reform isn’t. I think everyone will be completely confused by the reforms. And when people are confused they get nervous about initiatives. And when they’re nervous, they vote 'no.'”

Leaders of the reform efforts and advocates of legalizing marijuana say they haven’t talked to each other about a potential ballot logjam in 2010. Perhaps they should. It would be better for the state if both ideas didn’t end up on the ballot together.

There is some hope that the marijuana-tax advocates might wait for another election cycle. Bruce Mirken, communications director of the Marijuana Policy Project, suggests that a cannabis initiative might stand a better chance of winning in 2012, when a presidential election might draw more younger voters—who are more inclined to support legalization—to the polls.

Marijuana is legal in California only with a valid doctor’s recommendation—an exemption enacted by state voters via a 1996 ballot initiative. But medical marijuana dispensaries are so common—and doctor’s recommendations so easy to get—that the state already has moved to de facto legalization. Los Angeles alone has nearly 600 such dispensaries, usually small places with forgettable names tucked into storefronts and strip malls. (When I take my 7-month-old baby boy for a walk through our mid-city neighborhood, we pass as many as a half-dozen dispensaries, depending on our route.)

With marijuana so easily available, the case for taxation seems strong. The state’s Board of Equalization recently estimated that a cannabis tax could produce $1.4 billion per year. In a state with persistent budget deficits exceeding $10 billion, new revenue is attractive.

But federal law still prohibits recreational use of marijuana, and it’s unclear whether California voters can override that. Even if a tax passes, pot alone can’t solve California’s budget troubles. Several reform measures, all requiring approval by voters, are necessary. And reform plans won’t go anywhere if voters can’t see them through the smoke.

Joe Mathews is a journalist, an Irvine senior fellow at the New America Foundation, and a contributing writer at the Los Angeles Times. He previously served as Justice Department reporter for The Wall Street Journal and as a city desk reporter at the Baltimore Sun. He is the author of The People’s Machine: Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Rise of Blockbuster Democracy.