Californians have overwhelmingly supported the legalization of marijuana. Why is it always a mess?

Five years ago, California voters overwhelmingly chose to legalize adult marijuana use.

The passage of Proposition 64 was supposed to replace the state’s vast illegal and quasi-legal medical marijuana market, in which virtually anyone could get their hands on marijuana, with a tightly controlled system of safe products. , taxed sales and regulated trade.

In recommending Proposition 64 to voters, The Times editorial board argued that it is best for public health, public order and society to treat marijuana more like alcohol and less like alcohol. heroin – as a product regulated by law for adults.

And supporters of the initiative said it would create a controlled market that would allow adults access to safe and regulated marijuana products while protecting children. The new government-overseen industry would reduce environmental damage from illegal pot farms, reduce the power of criminal drug gangs, and help undo the damage caused by the war on drugs that disproportionately targeted black and Latino communities.

But today, many of the promises of Proposition 64 remain unfulfilled.

The black market is bigger than ever, with around 75% of marijuana sales in the state coming from unlicensed sellers. Illegal pot farms continue to degrade environmentally sensitive habitats.

Untested and unregulated cannabis products, including edibles and oils, still flood the market. And the commitment to help communities disadvantaged by the war on drugs is still ongoing. California, which was one of the first states to end prohibition, has become an example of how not to legalize marijuana.

Proposition 64 has fulfilled at least part of the promoters’ mission: adult use of marijuana has been decriminalized and normalized. Prosecutors have erased tens of thousands of marijuana-related convictions from individual files. Jar shops have been deemed essential businesses and allowed to remain open during COVID-19 closures.

Pop star Justin Bieber sings about his “California weed,” and even mainstream media companies have cannabis gift guides.

But beneath this widespread acceptance lurks a big problem: the vast majority of marijuana consumed in the state is not legal.

It was always going to be a challenge to move to a regulated system; unlicensed and quasi-legal producers, manufacturers and sellers of medical marijuana have operated in the state for years.

But even those in the industry have been surprised by the continued dynamism of the black market, which is due, in part, to the demands, such as high taxes and local control, in Proposition 64. Now the pot abundance illegal makes it nearly impossible for California to do what the initiative wanted.

An imperfect initiative

Even before election day, there were tensions and contradictions in Proposition 64.

To appease local governments and law enforcement, the initiative gave cities and counties the power to completely ban marijuana-related businesses in their jurisdictions.

And that’s exactly what two-thirds of the communities have done. This doesn’t mean that people aren’t selling or buying marijuana in these communities – they’re just doing it illegally, using unlicensed stores or local dealers.

Proposition 64 was also presented as a cash cow for the state. The initiative imposed taxes on cultivation and commercial sales, and allowed local governments to collect their own taxes. The hope was that marijuana would bring in more than $ 1 billion in tax revenue to the state each year to pay for after-school programs, job training, drug treatment, environmental cleanup, and others. worthy services. (Cannabis tax revenues exceeded $ 800 million in 2020-21.)

But high state and local taxes can add 50% or more to the price of products in a legal pot store. When the cost of labor, testing and product packaging is factored in, running a licensed business often does not fade away, especially when there are still many operators. from the black market who produce and sell to customers, who may not know or care that they are buying illegal pot.

And it undermines another goal of Proposition 64 to ensure that marijuana products are tracked, tested, pesticide-free, and safe for consumers. This has real implications for public safety. In early 2020, authorities seized vape cartridges of marijuana from illegal Los Angeles stores that contained a dangerous additive accused of an epidemic of fatal lung disease.

Meanwhile, even as large-scale licensed pot farms flourished in places like Santa Barbara and Monterey counties, illegal marijuana cultivation continued to flourish, often to the detriment of the environment. . In the rugged coastal areas of northern California, illicit growers flatten hills, spray pesticides and divert streams just as salmon and other fish species migrate in late summer and in autumn.

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