California Condemned to Repeat Past Mistakes
December 18, 2022
California’s cannabis mess
George Santayana wasn’t talking about California or marijuana when he said that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
But his often-quoted observation certainly applies to the Golden State after Proposition 64.
So, let’s start with a little history.
In 1996, voters approved Proposition 215, allowing the use of marijuana for medical purposes. The initiative offered next to no guidance about cultivation and distribution, banking and product safety, environmental degradation from illegal grows, or much of anything else.
State lawmakers looked the other way through almost two decades of chaos until state Sen. Mike McGuire and Assembly Jim Wood spent most of 2015 clearing the smoke and crafting a comprehensive seed to- sale regulatory system.
Despite all their work, the plan was never fully implemented.
Proposition 64 hit the ballot in 2016. It was presented to voters as legalizing marijuana for recreational use. As we noted at the time, simple possession already was an infraction — like driving with expired license plates — and it didn’t require a 30,415-word initiative to change that.
Many cannabis growers were skeptical of the initiative — with good reason.
Proposition 64, which was bankrolled by former Facebook President Sean Parker and championed by then-Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, created the framework for a vertically integrated marijuana industry, with promises of up to $1 billion a year in tax revenue, local control over retail sales and an end to illegal grows on public lands with dangerous pesticides, stolen water and armed guards.
Six years later, and despite the promises and all the statutory verbiage, Proposition 64 has recreated the Wild West that McGuire and Wood set out to tame.
As The Press Democrat’s Andrew Graham reported this past week, many growers have gone unpaid for their crops and fear losing their property, while some have returned to illegal cultivation to survive. Wholesale and retail businesses have popped up and collapsed.
Tax revenue hasn’t come close to rosy preelection forecasts, yet complaints echo across the cannabis-sphere about confiscatory taxes as well as the red tape involved with going legal. Many communities have exercised their option to prohibit marijuana sales, drawing protests from prospective buyers and sellers. Wholesale prices have collapsed because California produces far more cannabis than gets used here, and exports aren’t legal.
Illegal grows remain a huge problem, and Proposition 64 made the offense a misdemeanor, providing little disincentive for lawbreakers responsible for violence and environmental damage.
In short, Proposition 64 doesn’t appear to be working for anyone.
As we noted before the election in 2016: “If we learned anything from California’s medicinal marijuana law it’s the danger of passing a poorly worded ballot measure with the intent to fix it at some later date.”
This time, we hope, lawmakers won’t wait 19 years to act.
To be clear, the Legislature didn’t make a hash of the recreational cannabis market. Proposition 64 was drafted by people who saw profit potential and didn’t want to wait for Sacramento. But any fix almost certainly will fall to the Legislature.
We urge lawmakers to follow the example of McGuire and Wood. Perhaps Newsom, who was the public face of Proposition 64, could appoint a panel of stakeholders and experts to recommend changes, which may ultimately require another statewide vote.
California is not going to reverse course on recreational use of cannabis, but it’s time to declare Proposition 64 a failure and come up with a better approach.