California next up to legalize recreational marijuana?

Twenty years ago, California became the first state to legalize medicinal marijuana use — and it took a referendum to pass the law. Since then, California has fallen behind the curve a bit, as other Western states like Colorado, Oregon, and Washington have legalized recreational use as well. Given California’s somewhat lax requirements for medicinal referrals, taking that final step might be more formal than substantive — but voters will get the chance to take it in November nonetheless, and they will have a Facebook executive to thank for it:

California voters will decide whether to legalize recreational marijuana after Secretary of State Alex Padilla said Tuesday that initiative proponents turned in more than enough signatures to place the question on the November ballot.

A successful vote in California would mean one in every six Americans lives in a state with legal marijuana sales, including the entire West Coast.

The initiative is promoted by a well-funded and politically connected coalition spearheaded by former Facebook president Sean Parker.

It asks voters to allow people 21 and older to buy an ounce of marijuana and marijuana-infused products at licensed retail outlets and also grow up to six pot plants for personal recreational use.

Many people may be surprised to learn that California hasn’t taken this leap yet. They tried in 2010 with an ill-funded and ill-fated referendum that would have made them first in the nation for recreational marijuana, too. At that time, then-Attorney General Eric Holder went out of his way to harsh the Golden State’s mellow, threatening to use federal power to fill the gap on marijuana enforcement if the state decided to abdicate on prohibition. The initiative lost by 12 points, despite the relative popularity of marijuana use in the state. (Trust me on this … I grew up out there.)

At the time, I noted that the problem with the referendum was the lack of intelligent debate on the issues:

There are good arguments on both sides of this debate, although in California it more or less degenerated into sloganeering and silliness, such as the supposed difficulty of determining impairment of drivers (which California has been doing for decades) and the notion that pot would significantly help balance the budget.  The real question is whether the cost of prohibition in terms of both dollars and civil rights is worth the amount of success it has provided in keeping marijuana out of the hands of people who want to use it.

Perhaps now in California, the issue will more be whether California has really expended any serious costs in prohibition. I’d guess not, because the medicinal marijuana statute made it so easy to gain access to marijuana that recreational users have had that avenue for a couple of decades. That would make the alleged cost savings more theoretical than actual, but as in Colorado, legalization advocates see gold in them thar buds:

Should the initiative be approved by voters, the reduced costs to local and state governments for enforcing marijuana-related laws could exceed $100 million annually, according to the statement from the Secretary of State. Likewise, annual state and local tax revenues from the production and sale of marijuana could reach more than $1 billion — which would primarily “be required to be spent for specific purposes such as substance use disorder education, prevention and treatment.”

Colorado actually does see a significant revenue stream from licensed marijuana sales, although whether that outweighs the extra costs of oversight and enforcement may still take some years to determine. A recent poll cited by NPR shows that Californians seem willing to give it a go, with 60% in support of full legalization. Republicans, Teamsters, and law enforcement groups are not on board with it, but Democrats from Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom on down are backing it this time; outgoing Governor Jerry Brown opposed it in 2010. Don’t bet on a repeat of that outcome this time.