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SCVNews.com | Voters on Both Coasts to Decide on Recreational Pot | 10-20-2016
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Marijuana-620x330(CN) – California is poised to become the largest state in the nation to legalize recreational marijuana this November, a move the state’s lieutenant governor says could trigger “a domino effect” across the nation – and voters in four other states may also help tip the dominoes.

On Election Day, California voters will decide on Proposition 64, a ballot initiative that would legalize recreational marijuana use in the state for adults at least 21 years old and tax the production and sale of cannabis.

California is one of nine states voting on proposals to legalize recreational or medical marijuana on Nov. 8. Twenty-four states and the District of Columbia have already legalized marijuana in some form.

With a population of nearly 40 million, California is the nation’s largest state in terms of population and economy. It ranks as the sixth largest economy on the planet with a $2.4 trillion gross domestic product in 2015, according to the U.S. Dept. of Commerce.

In a recent interview, California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who has championed the cannabis proposal, told the PBS NewsHour that legalization in the Golden State could trigger “a domino effect” across the nation.

If approved, California’s Adult Use of Marijuana Act would tax cannabis growers $9.25 per ounce for marijuana flowers and $2.75 per ounce for leaves. Retail sales of cannabis would be taxed 15 percent on top of an existing state and local sales tax of 7.5 percent.

California stands to gain $1 billion per year in tax revenue and save tens of millions of dollars in criminal justice costs for marijuana-related offenses, according to the state’s independent Legislative Analyst’s Office.

Polls indicate voters are likely to approve California’s Proposition 64 this November, even with criticism against the proposal coming from unexpected corners of the state including the Emerald Triangle, a tri-county area in Northern California where most of the state’s green crop is grown.

Hezekiah Allen, executive director of the California Growers Association, says the new law would impose a large tax burden on small businesses and allow big businesses to swoop in and cultivate cannabis on unlimited acreage within five years.

“We want to see a sustainable marketplace composed of business that are guided by a stewardship ethic, not a simple profit motive,” Allen wrote in a blog post on his trade group’s website. “Many do not think Proposition 64 will create the world we envision.”

Dale Gieringer, director of California NORML, which advocates for marijuana legalization and reform, said his organization supports the proposed new law despite having “some misgivings.”

“It’s not the best initiative in the world, but on balance, we feel it advances the cause, especially because it does finally recognize the right of adults to use marijuana,” Gieringer said in an interview.

One of Gieringer’s biggest concerns is taxation, which he says will unduly burden medical marijuana patients. He also complains the law equates vaporizing to smoking and bans the use of marijuana in public, whether by smoke or vapor.

“Even though it’s okay to smoke cigarettes on the street, it will be illegal to smoke a marijuana vaporizer on the street,” Grienger said.

Currently, possessing less than an ounce of marijuana carries a $100 fine in California. The new law would reduce that penalty for those under the age of 18 to participation in a drug education program or counseling, and community service.

The proposed law would also reduce penalties for selling marijuana without a license from up to four years in state prison to six months in county jail and/or a $500 fine.

Those previously convicted of marijuana related offenses would become eligible for resentencing, and revenues from new marijuana taxes would partly be used to cover those costs, according to the state’s Legislative Analyst’s Office.

The law earmarks $10 to $50 million of expected tax revenue for job placement and substance abuse programs; $10 million to evaluate the effects of the new law; $3 million to determine a method for identify if a driver is impaired by marijuana; and $2 million to study the risks and benefits of medical marijuana.

Remaining revenues will be divvied up with 60 percent going to youth programs, 20 percent to mitigate environmental damage from cannabis growing, and 20 percent for programs designed to reduce driving under the influence and other potential negative impacts, according to the Legislative Analyst’s Office.

The lack of a set standard to determine if someone is driving under the influence of marijuana is a major problem for Kevin Sabet, executive director of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, which opposes Proposition 64.

“The tax revenues are going to be really taken by the cost,” Sabet said in an interview. “It’s going to be an increase in car crashes, and emergency room visits for people that can’t handle edibles.”

A study released by the Drug Policy Alliance earlier this month concluded that legalization in Colorado and Washington state has not caused more dangerous road conditions and that traffic fatality rates “remained statistically consistent with pre-legalization levels.”

Sabet contests that conclusion, claiming the Drug Policy Alliance puts out skewed data to support its legalization agenda. He pointed to statistics cited by his organization, which found an increase in the percentage of marijuana-related DUIs in Colorado and Washington last year, along with a rise in the percentage of Colorado drivers involved in traffic fatalities that tested positive for THC in 2014.

Sabet also complains the new law would let companies advertise “marijuana candies, gummies, lollipops, sodas and ice cream” on television.

In July, U.S. Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-California, came out against Proposition 64, saying it would allow “marijuana smoking ads in prime time, on programs with millions of children and teenage viewers.”

Specifically, the Adult Use of Marijuana Act restricts marijuana marketing and advertising to platforms where “at least 71.6 percent of the audience is reasonably expected to be 21 years of age or older.”

Joe Berry, president of the California Broadcasters Association, told Politifact in August that Proposition 64’s passing would not result in marijuana ads immediately appearing on TV and radio. That’s because the drug is still illegal under federal law, and radio and TV stations are licensed by the federal government, he said.

The “No on 64” campaign recently put out a new Spanish-language TV ad featuring a Hispanic woman holding two bars of chocolate, asking, “Which one is real chocolate?” The ad also warns that “Proposition 64 would allow marijuana candy to be advertised on television. On shows our children watch.”

Sabet said he believes California’s substantial Latino community will come out against Proposition 64 because “they don’t’ want drugs in their communities.”

Despite controversies surrounding the proposed new law, recent polls indicate a majority of California voters will support the ballot initiative this November.

California was the first state to approve medical marijuana back in 1996, and Gieringer believes attitudes about the plant have changed rapidly since 2010 when the Golden State voted down a different proposal to legalize recreational marijuana in a non-presidential election year.

“We’ve been living with the medical marijuana regime for the last 20 years. It hasn’t really brought down the house,” Gieringer said. “Years ago, people were panicked that all the kids would become stoners. People are seeing that it’s no more problematic than the underage drinking that’s been going on since forever. People feel more comfortable with it going around.”

Beyond California, residents in Maine, Massachusetts, Arizona and Nevada will also be asked to vote on legalizing recreational marijuana on Election Day.

Massachusetts voters legalized medical marijuana four years ago, and may be on the verge of legalizing recreational use of the drug.

According to a mid-October poll from WBUR, those in favor of legal weed held a solid lead over those against heading into the final weeks of election season, 55 percent to 40 percent.

Proponents of the measure argue that legalization will create a new source of tax revenue, while dismissing claims from opponents that marijuana is a gateway to harder drugs.

“The only real connection between cannabis and other drugs is prohibition,” said Bill Downing, spokesperson for the Mass Cannabis Reform Coalition. “When citizens looking for a safer alternative to alcohol go to find cannabis, they are often introduced to a source also offering hard drugs. This is a result of prohibition and has nothing to do with cannabis itself. The actual factual gateways to opioids are prescription drugs, not cannabis.”

The Campaign for a Safe and Healthy Massachusetts, the state’s largest group in opposition to the ballot question, argue that legalization would allow a flood of THC-infused edibles into the market that will be easily obtained by minors. The group also argues that legalization will cause an increase in drugged-driving fatalities.

Major elected city and state officials, including Gov. Charlie Baker, Attorney General Maura Healey and Boston Mayor Marty Walsh have lined up in opposition to the measure.

Supporters have raised $3.3 million in 2016 and spent all but $13,784 as of the campaign’s Oct. 1 filing with the Massachusetts Office of Campaign and Public Finance.

Three separate organizations filed with the regulator in opposition to the question, but have only raised a total of $634,048 and $136,479 as of Oct. 1. That may shift as conservative Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, who is originally from Massachusetts, announced that he had donated $1 million to The Campaign for a Safe and Healthy Massachusetts.

Changes to state marijuana policy have consistently come through ballot initiatives. Massachusetts voters last weighed in on the drug in 2012, when 63 percent approved a ballot measure to allow medical marijuana dispensaries.

Four years before that, 63 percent of the voters approved a decriminalization ballot question that replaced criminal penalties for possession of up to one ounce of marijuana with a $100 civil fine.

Despite legalizing medical marijuana in 2012, it took almost two years for the state to finalize its regulation, which required companies to operate their own in-state grow facilities in order to also have a dispensary.

The process was also slowed by reluctance from municipal governments, including Boston, to approve new dispensaries.

Over 100 companies submitted applications that were more than 100 pages each to start a Massachusetts operation in 2013. As of February 2016, only six establishments had opened for business.

Arizona voters meanwhile will determine the fate of Proposition 205, which would decriminalize possession of up to one ounce and six marijuana plants for individuals over 21, create regulation agencies and impose taxes on the substance much like existing parameters for alcohol and tobacco.

With signs dotting streets corners statewide, support from top state officials and the dollars to fund it all, Arizonans for Responsible Drug Policy is leading the campaign against Proposition 205.

“Upending decades of serious substance abuse policy by making today’s high-potency marijuana more available would constitute a youth health policy disaster,” the group’s chairman Seth Leibsohn said in a statement.

Most in opposition echo Leibsohn’s concerns that Proposition 205 is simply bad for children. They say legalizing pot would only make it more available to kids in the form of indistinguishable edibles and enticing sweets.

“[Proposition 205] will allow Big Marijuana companies to manufacture and sell marijuana-laced candies, cookies, drinks and ice-cream,” Sheila Polk, Yavapai County Attorney and vice-chair of Arizonans for Responsible Drug Policy, said in a statement.

Supporters say the measure will do the opposite, by eliminating the criminal market and increasing safety through regulation.

“Marijuana businesses will be required to test marijuana products to ensure that they are safe and properly labeled, sell marijuana products in child-resistant packaging, and check identification of customers to ensure marijuana is not sold to minors,” said J.P. Holyoak and Carlos Alfaro, of the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, in a joint statement.

Proposition 205 doesn’t decriminalize driving while under the influence of marijuana. Employers are still allowed to fire workers if they test positive for the drug, and landlords could continue prohibiting or regulating it on their properties.

The Joint Legislative Budget Committee also estimated marijuana tax revenue would generate $53 million in 2019 and $82 million in 2020.

“I’m all for 205 because our education system needs the funding that legal cannabis would bring,” said Phoenix voter Benjamin Kaufman. “I think it gives us a chance to see a more conservative legal cannabis market.”

He said doesn’t agree with Arizonans for Responsible Drug Policy.

“They are awful. They won’t do anything to address the state’s heroin problem or any other drug issues. Just cannabis,” he said.

The anti-legalization group has been criticized for funding their campaign in part with donations from the alcohol and pharmaceutical industries. Mostly recently, Tom Angell of Marijuana Majority revealed that prison food vendor Services Group of America gave $80,000 to the campaign. The Arizona Chamber of Commerce donated nearly $500,000, and Gov. Doug Ducey also opposes the measure.

“I don’t think that any state became stronger by being stoned,” Ducey remarked in a September press conference, as reported by Capitol Media Services. He rejected claims that marijuana is safer than opiates and alcohol.

Recent polls indicate the vote could go either way. One independent study conducted Oct. 11-12 by Data Orbital found that 45 percent oppose it, 44 percent support it, and 5 percent are undecided.

“Younger age groups favor pro-legalization, while we see older generations more staunchly against the legislation,” the Data Orbital report said.

The percentage difference is well within the poll’s 4 percent margin of error, but shows a marked increase in support for the measure compared to an O.H. Predictive Insights survey released in July. That poll found only 39 percent supported the initiative, with 52 percent opposed

Voters are split on the issue like they were in 2010, when the Arizona Medical Marijuana Initiative passed by less than half of a percent.

If passed in November, recreational marijuana in Arizona would officially become legal in March 2018.

Nevada’s bid to legalize recreational pot will likely be close as well.

A poll of likely voters commissioned by the Las Vegas Review-Journal in late September showed a 47-46 percent tilt toward Yes on Question 2, with 7 percent undecided.

If approved, the ballot initiative would allow Nevadans 21 years old or older to buy and possess up to an ounce of marijuana — but not concentrated marijuana — from licensed shops. They could cultivate up to six plants for personal use if they do not live within 25 miles of a marijuana store.

Marijuana stores would have to pay licensing, and a 15 percent sales tax on wholesalers and commercial cultivators.

Taxes and licensing fees would go to the state Department of Taxation and local governments to cover costs of regulation and enforcement, with any remaining revenue sent in the state’s distributive account for public schools.

Nevada already has licensed dispensaries and cultivation facilities for medical marijuana.

Four other states — Arkansas, Florida, Montana and North Dakota — will vote on ballot measures to authorize medical marijuana on Nov. 8 as well.

A Gallup poll released Wednesday found a record number of Americans – 60 percent – support legalizing marijuana. Support for legal pot is highest among Democrats and independents and younger voters, though Gallup found that an increasing number of Republicans and voters over 55 support legalization.

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