TOPICS > Politics

California to Let Voters Decide on Marijuana Legalization

October 13, 2010 at 5:03 PM EDT
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Judy Muller of KCET reports from California on the a ballot initiative in the state to legalize marijuana.

JIM LEHRER: Next tonight: to campaign politics in California, where voters face contentious fights for governor and senator and a controversial measure that could legalize marijuana in the nation’s most populous state.

Recent polling shows voters are closely divided on that proposition. Our report is part of our Vote 2010 coverage. It comes from correspondent Judy Muller of KCET Los Angeles.

JUDY MULLER, KCET reporter: Humboldt County lies at the heart of the so-called Emerald Triangle along California’s rugged North Coast. Ever since hippies moved here in the ’60s, looking for a remote spot to grow marijuana, Humboldt has been synonymous with pot.

Nate Morris is a grower.

NATE MORRIS, grower: In the same way that the Sonoma wine region is famous for that and the Champagne region is famous for that, like, this is the cannabis region. And there’s no reason it should lose that status. The — Humboldt has built an internationally recognized brand name for an illegitimate product.

JUDY MULLER: That product could become legitimate if California voters pass Proposition 19. And that has everyone here gearing up for some radical changes.

ANNA HAMILTON, radio talk show host: You’re listening to “Rant and

Rave, Lock and Load and Shoot Your Mouth Off.” And I want your opinion. What do you think of Prop 19? Let’s open the phone lines now and hear what you have to say.

JUDY MULLER: The ballot measure is the talk of the airwaves on Anna Hamilton’s radio show. KMUD routinely broadcasts warnings about drug busts, along with traffic and weather.

ANNA HAMILTON: Our economy is beyond underground. Marijuana has become the number-one agricultural product in California.

JUDY MULLER: Hamilton recently organized a first-ever meeting of reclusive pot growers and public officials to look at the impact of legalization.

MAN: We’re here to help you expand.

ANNA HAMILTON: My main goal was, we have got to start talking to the people that — the shakers and the movers, and we have got to let them know that we’re ready to have open, honest discussions, as much as we can without having the federal government put us in prison.

JUDY MULLER: Marijuana is still listed as an illegal substance by the federal government, which is why so many of the pot farmers came to the hidden valleys of Humboldt in the first place.

It used to be marijuana was only a small part of the economy in Humboldt County. Logging and salmon fishing provided most of the jobs. Then, the logging industry depleted most of its inventory. Saw mills closed. And now the salmon beds are covered with silt. Today, the residents count on marijuana for their economy.

Local economists estimate pot contributes more than $500 million to the county’s $3.6 billion economy. And those dollars don’t come just from selling pot, but from jobs supporting and processing it.

Dawn Walker, for example, works as a trimmer, carefully separating the potent buds from the leaves.

DAWN WALKER, trimmer: A lot of people support their families. A lot of specifically women support their children doing this job. And it’s — it’s something that almost everybody participates in.

JUDY MULLER: It can take more than eight hours to trim a pound of marijuana. But it pays well, between $20 and $25 an hour. That makes it one of the best jobs in the county, for now.

New technology, a mechanical trimmer, is likely to become commonplace as pot farming becomes more sophisticated. Legalizing pot would have other market repercussions as well. An increase in supply could cut the price by as much as 80 percent, according to a report by “The L.A. Times.”

And growers would have to start paying taxes on their crops, which is why not everyone in Humboldt favors legalization.

County supervisor Mark Lovelace:

MARK LOVELACE, third district supervisor, Humboldt County: The black market has been a great price subsidy for them. And they’re, interestingly, falling in line with some law enforcement agencies in saying, you know, we will oppose Prop 19.

JUDY MULLER: Lovelace says he supports Prop 19, but with some ambivalence. That’s because of the way it’s written.

Prop 19 is a bit of a mixed bag. It would allow anyone 21 or older to grow and possess small amounts of marijuana for personal use. But, when it comes to commercial use, the proposition would leave it up to the cities and counties to decide whether they want to allow that and how they would tax it. And that is bound to lead to some confusion.

MARK LOVELACE: Every county, every city could have an entirely different approach to it, the potential that you could have a county that says, yes, we will legalize it, and you could have the cities within that county saying, no, we’re not going to.

JUDY MULLER: So, while no one knows how all of this will be straightened out, lot of folks are getting into position to cash in, just in case. An earlier proposition which made medical marijuana legal in California has helped in that transition.

REW POPP, marijuana chef: I make medical treats for dispensaries.

JUDY MULLER: Rew Popp works part time at an upscale restaurant in Humboldt County. But he dreams of bigger things, should pot be legalized.

REW POPP: I could open a restaurant then, which is what I really want

to do, where it would be like wine pairing, but it would be like ganja paired with like wines and foods and in your salad dressing. And then it would be — I would want to put it in a metropolitan area, where I could have taxis that would take people home.

JUDY MULLER: For now, he contents himself with whipping up marijuana- laced desserts for people who prefer edibles to smoking.

REW POPP: I have the basic ingredients laid out here.

JUDY MULLER: And the basic ingredients, I can tell, start with…

REW POPP: Yes, we start with the ganja.

JUDY MULLER: He mixes the marijuana with butter, adds chopped nuts, packs the mixture into small tins.

All the marijuana that’s going into this tart in already in this crust?

It’s — it’s right here?

REW POPP: It’s right here.

JUDY MULLER: And then tops it with fruit and coconut nectar. Now, this is really labor-intensive. What would you charge for one of


REW POPP: To the dispensaries, they normally sell them for like 10 bucks or something.

JUDY MULLER: Rew Popp’s friend Beverley Wolfe makes medical ointments from marijuana for people suffering from arthritis and muscle pain.

BEVERLEY WOLFE, entrepreneur: Now I’m adding the extra virgin olive oil infused with the high-potency THC cannabis.

JUDY MULLER: You would think she would support Prop 19, since it would give her access to a bigger market. Not so.

BEVERLEY WOLFE: I don’t feel comfortable in knowing that it’s possible for large corporations that maybe aren’t even necessarily medicinally interested, but are monetarily interested, to be able to come in and take portions of our North Coast and turn them into an industry that takes what has grown as a cottage industry here out of the hands of the community.

JUDY MULLER: And that’s a common refrain in Humboldt County, fear of the big tobacco or pharmaceutical companies undermining the local lifestyle.

REW POPP: I’m concerned that the proposition will push the medicine towards corporate farming. And nobody wants to get their weed from Wal-Mart.

JUDY MULLER: And there’s also the threat of competition from other,

more accessible areas of the state, like the Central Valley.

REW POPP: I think there’s a lot of farmers in Fresno that would make a lot more money if they had a field full of ganja than some $2-a-bushel crop. And they have got the — they have got the land and they have got the water rights.

JUDY MULLER: Grower Nate Morris thinks the best way to remain competitive is to market Humboldt pot as a premium brand.

Would you like to see this whole area become sort of the Napa Valley of cannabis?

NATE MORRIS: That would be a great outcome to me. Like, anything that prevents complete, you know, economic catastrophe sounds great to me.

JUDY MULLER: Morris says he grows medical marijuana primarily for research, determining which strains of cannabis are best for specific ailments. He supports Prop 19 and actually hopes that legalization will drive prices down.

NATE MORRIS: If you’re talking about a crop that is currently selling

at $3,000 a pound, it can come down two-thirds, and you’re still talking about $1,000 a pound. And that’s plenty for family farmers to make a living.

JUDY MULLER: Whatever the fate of Prop 19, the momentum is clearly headed in the direction of a more tolerant attitude.

Governor Schwarzenegger just signed a law that downgrades possession of an ounce of marijuana from a misdemeanor to an infraction, much like a parking ticket, with no jail time or criminal record attached. And if Proposition 19 does not pass?

MARK LOVELACE: If it doesn’t pass, there will be another effort. I — you know, I — I’m positive of that. If it doesn’t pass in 2010, then I am sure that we will see something in 2012.

JUDY MULLER: In the meantime, says Nate Morris, the family pot farmers of Humboldt County need to organize to protect their interests.

NATE MORRIS: If we were drafting laws for our wine export or our avocado export, there would be lobbyists from those industries that would actively try to voice the, you know, desires of their constituents. And we don’t have that in the cannabis trade.

JUDY MULLER: Not yet, anyway. With the cannabis trade spawning a new generation of entrepreneurs, lobbyists are bound to be close behind.