California voters legalized marijuana on Tuesday, but don’t light up or open a pot business just yet. There’s a lot more work to be done.
Californians overwhelmingly backed Proposition 64, which allows adults to possess and smoke up to an ounce of marijuana. And the Golden State may not have been alone in easing its cannabis ban. Several other states were expected to vote to legalize recreational pot on Tuesday. This election marks a major victory for advocates of legalization, who have argued that marijuana prohibition has helped sustain a costly war on drugs that targeted marginalized communities and empowered violent drug cartels, yet did little to curb usage.
But the passage of Prop. 64 is not the end of the legalization debate. Nor does it resolve the challenges of unwinding decades of prohibition.
California and fellow pot-friendly states still have to deal with the fact that marijuana is illegal under federal law. Growers, sellers and even consumers are at risk if the next administration or Congress decides that federal law should be rigorously enforced. Even if that doesn’t happen, the federal prohibition creates challenges. Federal banking laws and regulations effectively prevent pot shops from having bank accounts, accepting credit card transactions or paying their taxes by electronic transfer, so billions of dollars will flow through the industry in cash (with all the risk that this entails). And even in states that have given their blessing to recreational pot use, federal authorities still enforce the ban on marijuana in national parks and on other federal property.
So far, federal leaders have been content to largely ignore the state-by-state experimentation with legal marijuana. Now that the nation’s most populous state has opened the door to an estimated $6-billion cannabis market, however, leaders in the nation’s capital have to begin to address the conflict between state and federal laws.
Prop. 64 is also just the beginning of essential work by government officials in California. The ballot measured offered a framework for how to regulate marijuana. But over the coming months and years, state, county and city leaders will have fill in the details of how to control the growth, distribution and sale of marijuana. Those details include where and how much advertising is allowed (the Los Angeles City Council is already considering how to ban pot ads); how many pot farms and shops to permit in a community; and, in the longer term, whether to discourage pot use through high taxes and tough regulation, as the state does with cigarettes. It’s essential that the people who had legitimate qualms with Prop. 64, including law enforcement, public health experts and advocates for small marijuana businesses, have a voice in the decision making.
Gov. Jerry Brown can’t sit on the sidelines; his office gives him the unique ability to bring together regulators and interest groups to help fill in the blanks left by Proposition 64 and smooth the transition to a legal marijuana market. So far, Brown has not taken a public position on the measure, and he’s been dismissive of legalization in the past, including asking in a 2014 interview, “How many people can get stoned and still have a great state or a great nation?” The answer will depend on how he and his administration respond.
Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper was opposed to legalization, but he and other top state officials are now sharing with other states the lessons they’ve learned, including the need to start early with public health messages to discourage youth from using marijuana and educate people on the risks of misusing cannabis-spiked edibles. States should also begin collecting baseline data on consumption, driving under the influence, hospitalizations and other risk factors so officials can recognize trouble spots and address them.
California has the opportunity to demonstrate that marijuana can be legalized with minimal harm to the public good. It’s up to lawmakers, regulators and advocates to ensure that this experiment in legalization works for all.