In Calif., voters split on marijuana legalization
Friday, September 10, 2010
OAKLAND, CALIF. - For those who have long argued that smoking marijuana should not be a crime, a potentially historic turning point is just weeks away.
Voters in California will decide Nov. 2 whether to make their state the first to legalize the growing, selling and recreational use of marijuana. And polls here - the nation's most populous state - suggest that residents are about evenly split on the issue.
Proposition 19, as it is known, would take away criminal penalties for people 21 and older for possession of one ounce or less of marijuana.
If it becomes law, it would mark yet another legal milestone for the state. Fourteen years ago, California became the first to allow the use of marijuana for medical purposes. Since then, 13 other states and the District have followed suit.
Advocates for legalization say they hope the vote in November will set off another trend across the nation.
"If and when this passes," said Jeff Jones, a longtime cannabis advocate who was arrested a decade ago for opening a medical marijuana dispensary, "you will see stories around the world saying this was a major shift in drug policy."
Supporters of Proposition 19 argue not only that legalization could help dismantle violent Mexican drug cartels, but also ease the state's crippling $19 billion budget deficit with new taxes on the sale of marijuana.
But opponents warn that passage could unleash a legal nightmare: They say the referendum would bar employers from firing stoned workers without proving first that they were impaired. That would mean school bus drivers, for example, could get high before climbing behind the wheel, according to critics.
An unlikely coalition has formed, with medical marijuana dispensary owners and marijuana growers joining law enforcement to oppose the measure. That camp also disputes the promise of a new stream of cash into state coffers.
Proposition 19 is on the ballot largely because of one man: Richard Lee, owner of Oaksterdam University, which trains medical marijuana growers and dispensers. Lee has bankrolled the campaign, donating $1.46 million.
"A lot like alcohol prohibition repeal came about because of the Great Depression, now we have the great recession," he said. "We've got budget problems, and Al Capone-style violence in Mexico."
As is often the case, both sides argue that money is the motivating factor. Lee's opponents say he stands to make millions if marijuana becomes legal, with added business to his university and coffee shops in his "Oaksterdam" neighborhood adding pot to the menu.