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California, the first state to legalize medical marijuana 20 years ago, will vote in November on whether to legalize recreational use for people over the age of 21. With 39 million residents and the world’s 6th-largest economy, California’s status could resonate throughout the country. NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Mike Taibbi reports.
Beyond a winding country road out of the mountains in central California, a half-hour drive from a store of any kind, 63-year-old farmer Simon Caleb tends his crop.
We bought seed from a guy in town.
His crop, for more than 25 years…marijuana. Medical marijuana, he says. His grow operation…well, let's say, discreet.
"I guess I like the thrill…of kind of being on the other side…"
A touch of outlaw?
A touch of outlaw, yeah. Non-conformist, I guess.
In the 20 years since medical marijuana was approved here, farmers like Caleb say their cottage industry has been operating in a legal gray area where federal law and local regulations are at irreconcilable odds with each other. Now, on Election Day, that legal tension could ratchet up even higher: California will decide whether to legalize recreational marijuana through proposition 64, the adult use of marijuana act.The 62-page initiative comes down to this:
the ability to possess, transport, purchase, and use up to one ounce of the drug, and to cultivate up to six living plants.
a prohibition on large scale cultivation licenses for the first five years to discourage a gold rush by giant corporate interests.
For the state:
an additional 15 percent tax on all pot purchases, on top of sales tax…with projected new revenue in the billions every year earmarked for youth drug awareness and treatment programs as well as law enforcement.
The most outspoken supporter of Prop 64 is Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom.
I'm just anti-prohibition. I'm vehemently anti-prohibition. I think prohibition has done more harm than the drug itself. That's my crusade.
But Prop 64's opponents have their own crusade.
And if you're in an industry that is selling this stuff..
Kevin Sabet is a professor of psychiatry and has advised three presidents on drug policy. He now heads a nationwide anti-legalization group that advocates for public health-based approaches to marijuana regulation.
What this is about is not adults smoking a joint in the privacy of their own home. This is about the mass commercialization of marijuana by for-profit companies.
Medical marijuana is already an industry generating huge profits…nearly three billion dollars in California last year.
NATPOP, BLUM SALESPERSON:
Let me see your ID, too.
Derek Peterson's Blum dispensary in Oakland sits just off a highway off-ramp, and the traffic inside is bumper to bumper.
We see anywhere from 900 to a thousand people a day. About $13 million a year in revenue out of this store, and that's just with the medical program in place.
Right now, 25 states allow the sale and use of medical marijuana; four states plus the District of Columbia have already legalized recreational use, and besides California, four more states will vote on legalized recreational pot on Election Day.
But both sides agree that California, with its 39 million residents and the world's 6th largest economy, is the linchpin that could lock up the West Coast for legalized pot and lead to the end of any meaningful marijuana prohibition in the U.S.
I think if California goes, it's a domino effect for the rest of the nation.
They see California as a massive economic powerhouse, as a massive place where their commercialized marijuana can make money.
Law enforcement also largely opposes legalization for recreational pot. Mike Boudreaux is sheriff in central California's Tulare County.
I just can't, in good judgment, believe that if we make it legal that our community will be safer.
Sheriff Boudreaux says that last year alone his department shut down more than 300 illegal marijuana grow operations, and he says, a number of those were linked to criminal drug trafficking operations.
SHERIFF MIKE BOUDREAUX:
Our resources are drawn very thin in the fight against these marijuana cartels and drug trafficking organizations. There's violence that comes along with that. In 2011, there were nine of our 18 homicides that were directly related to marijuana grow sites.
He is also concerned about marijuana-impaired driving.
For example, in Washington state, in its first year of legal marijuana sales, the percentage of drivers involved in fatal crashes who had marijuana in their system more than doubled from 8 percent in 2013 to 17 percent in 2014, that according to triple-A and the state's traffic safety commission.
But researchers are hesitant to draw any conclusions, because there's no clear method for collecting this data and no reliable test for when drivers become impaired from using marijuana. Marijuana can stay in your bloodstream for weeks.
Los Angeles police officer Kamaron Sardar says police are still searching for a tool like a breathalyzer to measure marijuana use and impairment. The LAPD is testing this oral fluid device.
It collects just saliva from the mouth, is that it?
Correct…saliva and any debris in there.
On the growers' side, Simon Caleb has been showing up at meetings about Prop 64 because he wants to make sure he complies with any new regulations that may be coming. But even so, it may surprise you to learn — he does not support the initiative.
I am opposed to it. I don't like the idea that big business is going to be able to come in. I think the whole industry is going to change. It's going to stop from local farmers, the cottage industry, it's going to be big business and the quality will go down.
On his ten mile stretch of country road, he says, the number of similar grow operations known to law enforcement…is mind-boggling.
237 that they know of.
That's a precise number. So they know there's a marijuana grow operations?
Yes. It's going to be too many for the area, too many for the whole market.
And then there's that elephant in the room: Whatever California and other states decide, the federal drug enforcement administration still lists marijuana as a schedule one drug, among the most dangerous, along with heroin, LSD, and ecstasy. Buying and selling pot remains a crime under federal, and most state, laws.
The result, say legalization advocates: more than 700-thousand arrests every year for marijuana-related offenses, many for mere possession and primarily of African-Americans and Latinos.
Lynne Lyman is the California state director for the pro-legalization drug policy alliance.
We have the data that shows that black, white, Latino…we all use and sell drugs roughly at the same rate, and yet any jurisdiction in this country, certainly in California, you will see that the people we arrest and incarcerate for drug offenses are black and brown…"
It's about a war on drugs that's an abject failure. I want to end it, want to end it in this country. And I want to reduce the cost to the taxpayers. I want people to operate legally, and I want them to be accountable and responsible."
Anti-legalization activist Kevin Sabet does support decriminalization for the consumer as the middle ground between legalization and prohibition.
If they want to grow a plant, if they want to get it from a friend, I don't care, if they want to get it as a gift from somebody, I don't care. The point is. I don't think the sales should be legal, because i think what that brings is another tobacco industry.
Sabet fears big marijuana is looking to hook buyers when they're young…given the way medical marijuana and its edible products are already being marketed.
They look like gummy bears they're called gummy bears… they've got lollipops.
Things that kids like.
Yup. In fact, opponents insist legalization for recreational use all but guarantees a parent's worst nightmare…the normalization of pot use, even for children.
The last thing they want to see their kids get involved in is a drug that essentially makes you drop out of life, a drug that makes you not care about anything if you're using it every day.
Are you getting to 'pot makes you stupid'?
Well, using it every day certainly increases the chances of being stupid.
You can smoke 15 joints a day, you're not going to overdose, you're not going to find your child on the floor convulsing and have to rush him to the emergency room. It's just not going to happen.
Legalization supporters point to the Netherlands, where a 2014 NewsHour Weekend report showed recreational pot use in so-called "coffee houses," where customers smoke openly, has been tolerated for 40 years with no measurable increase in the use of harder drugs.
Derek Peterson says the proliferation of medical marijuana dispensaries like his and the ease of getting a medical marijuana card have already lowered the bar for anyone in California who just wants pot.
It is very quasi-recreational. Anybody that tells you otherwise is, to me, being dishonest. But that doesn't mean it's a bad thing. You know I run a publicly traded company. I have 150 employees, I deal with very complicated issues, I'm a very functional individual… I smoke almost every day.
Legalization advocate Lynn Lyman says many Californians already tolerate such recreational pot use.
People who look like me. For white people, marijuana is practically legal in California. I can use my marijuana anywhere, nobody ever bothers me.
Probably not in a local Starbucks.
Oh, believe me, I've done it. Well, I have a vape, so it has no scent but if you are black or brown that is just not the case.
Legalization would be a bonanza for new pot products, including the oils for Lyman's e-cigarette vaping devices and, yes, those edibles sold at the Blum dispensary.
With imaginative chemists in a seed-to-sale operation, and legalization in other states on the horizon, Peterson envisions his business becoming a multi-state empire.
Our short term trajectory, over the next 24 months, is to get the company between $50-75 million in revenue.
In the next 4, 5 years, you will be the R.J. Reynolds of the pot business.
Hate that comparison but I like to look at our company more like a Ben & Jerry's type of an organization than say R.J. Reynolds.
But for Simon Caleb and those other small growers who've been operating in the shadows for years, even decades,becoming street legal is a really complicated process.
Complicated and expensive. there'll be fees to the county and the state, income and payroll taxes, workers compensation insurance for his employees, inspections by a half dozen agencies. Caleb says many of his neighboring farmers say, 'forget about it.'
I've only seen maybe two of them at a meeting. They don't attend; they're, I guess, maybe burying their head in the sand, but it's coming— and we have to be prepared.
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Melanie Saltzman reports, shoots and produces stories for PBS NewsHour Weekend on a wide range of issues including public health, the environment and international affairs. In 2017 she produced two stories for NewsHour’s “America Addicted” series on the opioid epidemic, traveled to the Marshall Islands to report on climate change, and went to Kenya and Tanzania to focus on solutions-based reporting. Melanie holds a BA from New York University and an MA in Journalism from Northwestern University, where she was a McCormick National Security Fellow. In 2010, she was awarded a Fulbright scholarship in Berlin, Germany.
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