On election night last November, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, riding high on the news that California voters had approved Proposition 64 to legalize recreational pot, bragged to a reporter: “I think it’s the beginning of the end of the war on marijuana in the United States.”
That was a bit optimistic, even for Newsom.
A few sobering months into 2017, what’s becoming increasingly clear is that the state, its cities and counties, and, most troubling, the federal government are far from being on the same page about the creation of an industry for legal marijuana. Instead, what we’ve seen is a gathering storm of uncertainty that, for the sake of public health and public safety, should be resolved – sooner rather than later.
Cities, for the most part, are moving ahead quickly. This week, Sacramento and Los Angeles approved laws for commercial cultivation, including a framework for licensing, taxing and zoning marijuana businesses.
“I think there is a tremendous revenue opportunity for us – and jobs, potentially high-wage jobs. But we want to do it right,” Mayor Darrell Steinberg, who endorsed Proposition 64, said at Tuesday’s City Council meeting.
Sacramento expects to start accepting applications for permits for indoor grow rooms by April, while the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors this month will consider an ordinance that would prohibit all marijuana cultivation for commercial purposes.
The state, meanwhile, is behind schedule on drafting regulations necessary to start issuing licenses to growers and sellers in January, when Proposition 64 is supposed to take full effect. The state should take its time. Meeting an arbitrary deadline is far less important than getting the regulations right, even if a delay might pose a problem for cities lusting after a tax revenue windfall. Sacramento expects to raise about $6 million from pot businesses.
Those problems, as pressing as they may seem, are nothing compared to the wrench the federal government could throw in the works. The Trump administration has the real power. A renewed crackdown on dispensaries and grow farms by federal agents could kill California’s commercial marijuana industry before it even gets off the ground.
For years under the Obama administration, the Justice Department passed on hard-line drug raids, preferring to let states set their own policies on both medical and recreational weed. But last month, White House press secretary Sean Spicer set off a panic in California, suggesting that states could be subject to “greater enforcement” of federal drug laws.
Days later, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions restated his opposition to expanded use of marijuana. “States, they can pass the laws they choose,” he said. “I would just say it does remain a violation of federal law to distribute marijuana throughout any place in the United States, whether a state legalizes it or not.”
Right now, there are more questions than answers about what Sessions will actually do, but officials from California and the seven other states with legal recreational pot are prepping for a legal fight anyway.
We opposed Proposition 64, believing it would damage public health. We also understand that voters spoke. But far from ending the war on drugs, as Newsom predicted, it would seem the battle lines have merely shifted.