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How Would Legalizing Pot Affect Calif. Budget, Communities?

How Would Legalizing Pot Affect Calif. Budget, Communities?
Hear about the growing debate over the proposition to legalize marijuana in California.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. It's a testimony to the overwhelming number of concerns facing California voters this year, that a remarkable proposition is not yet generating more headlines. Proposition 19 on the November ballot would legalize marijuana possession in California and allow regulated sales of marijuana. It would be the first such law in the country. Depending on which poll you read, the initiative either has a lead, or is virtually tied between supporters and opponents. Some say legalizing marijuana would generate some badly needed revenue in new taxes for California's counties but both sides of the debate maintain that the issue of changing California's drug law is more important than the potential monetary benefit. I’d like to welcome my guests to discuss Prop 19. Stephen Gutwillig is California state director for the Drug Policy Alliance, a group that works to change America's drug laws. And, Stephen, welcome to These Days.

STEPHEN GUTWILLIG (California Director, Drug Policy Alliance): Good morning. Great to be with you.

CAVANAUGH: Roger Morgan is chairman and executive director of the Coalition for a Drug Free California. Good morning, Roger.

ROGER MORGAN (Chairman/Executive Director, Coalition for a Drug Free California): Good morning, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: Now we’d like to invite our listeners to join the conversation. Would it be a mistake to legalize marijuana in California? What could be gained? What are the risks? Give us a call with your questions and comments. Our number is 1-888-895-5727, that’s 1-888-895-KPBS. Stephen, let me start with you. Why do you think now could be the right time to legalize marijuana in California?

GUTWILLIG: Well, marijuana prohibition has been a costly failure for decades in that it basically provides no benefits while actually causing substantial harms, primarily fueling the enormous black market and all the crime, violence and corruption and out-of-control youth access that many of us are familiar with. And it seems that California voters are ready to say enough is enough, let’s begin to bring marijuana out of the shadow economy and begin to bring it under the rule of law and which is what Prop 19 would do.

CAVANAUGH: Roger, I’m interested in your take on this. Why do you think we’re talking about this now? Why do you think Prop 19 got on the ballot?

MORGAN: Well, it’s been a part of a long term move by the pro-drug legalizers to legalize the drug. It started with the medical marijuana hoax that we’ve been blessed with since 1996. That plan was specifically intended to give pot a good name by saying it’s medical marijuana, which it’s, in reality, it is not; there’s no medicinal benefits to it. But what we’ve experienced already because of Prop 215 and then subsequently Senate Bill 420, which opened the barn door for marijuana use for almost any ailment has been catastrophic and extremely costly for every community in California. This bill, because of the way it’s written, would be a public policy nightmare. It doesn’t give any money to the state. All of the economic benefits and the power to regulate and tax would go to the 478 communities and cities – or counties and cities in the state to make an individual determination.


MORGAN: That’s a policy nightmare to begin with. Secondly, because it’s in conflict with federal law, we would lose so much money. I mean, potentially employers could not use the excuse of not hiring somebody because they use pot or they’d have to retain them because of federal drug free workplace laws. Californians that depend on federal contracts could lose potentially $50 or $60 billion.

CAVANAUGH: Roger, let me get Stephen’s take on the way that this proposition is actually written because I have heard some criticism that it is – it’s rather vague. Do you feel that it suffers from that, Stephen?

GUTWILLIG: Not at all, and, you know, and of course the, you know, the mischaracterizations that we just heard are the typical, you know, drug war, status quo, fear mongering that, you know, put us in the situation that we currently suffer from. The Prop 19 is actually fairly simple. It does two things. It eliminates criminal penalties for low level personal possession of marijuana for adults 21 and over, and then it delegates to local governments the decision about whether to regulate sales of marijuana also to adults 21 and over, which means that every jurisdiction has the right to decide whether to do that and, if so, how to do that. It also allows, very specifically, the State of California, through the legislature, with a simple majority of the legislature at some point in the future, to decide whether to create a statewide system to regulate sales if and when they do so. So it’s actually a very modest and fairly conservative approach to regulating – to creating, you know, regulation of marijuana in California, allowing it to happen incrementally under the scrutiny of local governments and their constituencies. We’re talking about city councils and boards of supervisors making these decisions which are obviously not going to be rash and not going to be fast.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Stephen Gutwillig. He is state director for the Drug Policy Alliance. And Roger Morgan, chairman/executive director for the Coalition for a Drug Free California. We’re talking about Proposition 19 that’s going to appear on the November ballot, which would legalize marijuana possession in California. Our number, if you’d like to join the conversation to weigh in, 1-888-895-5727. Roger, you know, I’m wondering if you are surprised by the numbers that are being generated by some polls on this? Recently, I’ve seen that the – some polls say that this is leading among people who say that they will vote in November and other polls say that it’s kind of running neck and neck. How would you explain those results?

MORGAN: No, I think as people become enlightened on the realities of this bill that they never will vote for it. We’ve seen a decline in the people that were initially in favor of it. I mean, if you just look at it on surface, a lot of people say, oh, it’s going to bring money into the state. If you know the realities of today’s high potency pot and the detrimental effects it has on every social problem we have in California, I think they will realize if this is the only way to balance the budget we’re better off living in poverty. This drug is a mind-altering narcotic, number one. It’s – may be analogous to saying we shouldn’t have speed limits on the highway as opposed to what Stephen said the reality is. Prohibition hasn’t been a costly failure. If we did not have medical marijuana in California, we wouldn’t be having the problems we’re having now.

CAVANAUGH: Stephen, let me ask you something because in doing some research, I did notice that the poll numbers are what might be characterized – are surprisingly high for this Proposition 19 and despite whatever problems there have been with the implementation of medical marijuana laws, that 76% of pollees, of voters, say that they would still support that.

GUTWILLIG: Exactly right and…


GUTWILLIG: …you know, the kind of rhetoric we just heard from Roger is exactly why the Proposition 19 is doing as well as it is, reflecting the sentiments of most Californians, as you say, who, despite the bumps in the road, which have been considerable in the 14 years since they adopted the first in the nation medical marijuana law, that there’s enormous support and understanding that marijuana does have medicinal benefits, that marijuana is a – you know, that marijuana is, in general, of course has some risks associated with its consumption but it is already a highly available, widely consumed commodity that is far less harmful than alcohol and tobacco, which are regulated and controlled and that it’s very clear to most people that there is a sort of devastating and hypocritical disconnect between the way that we regulate these other substances but ban marijuana outright in a way that guarantees profits to criminal syndicates on both sides of the border and creates enormous crime violence and corruption and that it’s just time to bring it under the rule of law once and for all instead of ceding every decision about how marijuana’s going to be made available, how it’s going to be produced to criminals.

CAVANAUGH: But, Stephen, the second half of the question was even though it does enjoy this popularity among the voting public, it seems that law enforcement is wind up (sic) pretty solidly against the idea of allowing marijuana to be legalized. And, Stephen, I’m wondering how do you explain that?

GUTWILLIG: Well, that’s actually not accurate. The law enforcement entities, the lobbyists, the organizations that represents – that represent lawmakers, the political arm of law enforcement, of course, is against it because that is, you know, the position that they always have and politically, of course, you can’t imagine that they would come out in favor of this change, however you look at the list of supporters for Prop 19 and there are dozens and dozens of other law enforcement figures, many of them retired, and it is extremely common within the drug policy reform discussions for retired beat cops, judges, district attorneys, to say I knew when I was enforcing these laws that they were a terrible waste of scarce law enforcement resources. I wish I could’ve spoken up. My career would’ve been jeopardized. But just look at who is signing the ballot arguments and, you know, and you’ll see that there are many, many figures in law enforcement who are willing to step out and tell the truth and break ranks with the dominance within the law enforcement lobby that is perpetuating a status quo, that is bankrupting the state, and spending what is literally hundreds of millions of dollars in California alone trying to enforce these unenforceable laws.

CAVANAUGH: Roger, I have to give you a chance to respond to that. What would you like to say?

MORGAN: Well, I think the – what Stephen misses, there’s a lot of law enforcement people that have been confronted with this problem for decades and I understand where they’re coming from when they say we’re not getting anywhere. The supply keeps coming. We’re not getting anywhere. And what you have to understand is this pot today is not the same stuff we had 30 years ago. It’s not even the same stuff we had 5 years ago. The THC content today, out of Harborside in Oakland, for example, ranges from 10 to 21% THC, which is the psychoactive ingredient. 30 years ago, the confiscated pot had a THC content of one-half percent, maybe ranging as high as 2 or 3%. This stuff alters the mind, particularly with young people.

GUTWILLIG: All the more reason that we should regulate it and control its content.

MORGAN: Well, if you wanted to control it for medicinal purposes, Stephen, it would never be in the form of a smoked product, number one. Secondly, I don’t know how you regulate a product when you can’t tell what’s in it, you can’t tell the dosage, and you can’t tell the potency. 10 to 21% THC is the same content they had in England that caused about 25,000 new cases of mental illness in 2 years. They decriminalized it and then they recriminalized it because it was devastating the population.

CAVANAUGH: I’d like to get some of our…

MORGAN: We’ll have the same problem here.

CAVANAUGH: Some of our callers want to get into our conversation. Our number is 1-888-895-5727. Joe is calling us from Mission Valley. Good morning, Joe, and welcome to These Days.

JOE (Caller, Mission Valley): Hi. Yeah, I initially had a comment but I guess I’d rather maybe turn it into a question for Roger. We’ve been fighting the war on drugs for the past 40 years and I guess I’d just like to know from Roger’s perspective it doesn’t appear to me that we’re any closer but maybe from Roger’s perspective he can give me a year when we’ll win the war on drugs.


MORGAN: Yes, I think what’s been lacking in the war on drugs is that we don’t do anything to prevent it. It’s called a pediatric onset disease because it almost always starts with kids. If we want to present – prevent it we have to use the best tools available, which I believe is nonpreventative – sorry. Non-punitive random drug testing. It should be a mandate for all middle and high school kids. What we’ve discovered or scientists have discovered in the last 5 years is that the human brain is very susceptible until age 24 or 25. That also happens to be the highest category of drug use. I think 18 to 25 is the highest category, 12 to 17 comes in behind that.

CAVANAUGH: I wanted to ask is, Stephen, though, would this legalizing of marijuana possession would have an age limit, right? I mean, you…

GUTWILLIG: That’s right, it would. And, you know, the caller’s question’s, of course, very astute. And let me just say one quick thing about the way in which the drug war functions in California in particular. 20 years ago, law enforcement focused their marijuana law enforcement on production and distribution, right, on dealers and growers, and that was the majority of where the effort went. Today, it’s just the opposite. The significant majority of drug – of marijuana law enforcement is on individual, low level possession consumers, right. We arrest 80,000 people in California every year for marijuana crimes. 90% of them are low level possession arrests with enormous immoral race-based disparities at the heart of that enforcement. Prop 19 would put an end to that.

CAVANAUGH: And just to be clear, the – this Prop 19 would legalize marijuana possession for adults. It would still be illegal for minors to have anything to do with marijuana, is that correct?

GUTWILLIG: That’s right, and it would still be illegal for anyone to transmit or sell marijuana to anyone under the age of 21, and we’re – you know, this is in a state where the age of adulthood is 18, so they are – They wrote Proposition 19 to conform with the alcohol – with the drinking age.

CAVANAUGH: And that still for you, Roger, is an increased problem?

MORGAN: Oh, absolutely. Look what Prop 19 would do. Number one, you can grow it at home in a five-by-five foot area. So we’ve got homegrown stuff, we’ve got Mexican cartels which would be able to import marijuana across the board legally, we’ve got illegal groves in the national forests, and you combine that with legal groves, and we would have such a surplus of marijuana that we have to look to a black market to get rid of it. And the black market is kids that are underage…

GUTWILLIG: Well, that’s the situation…

MORGAN: …like they are now. There’s people outside…

GUTWILLIG: …that we have right now is a…

MORGAN: …outside of California…

GUTWILLIG: …completely out-of-control black market. And this is – And no one is really saying, you know, with any seriousness that the passage of Proposition 19 is going to eliminate what is already an enormous black market worth $14 billion a year, but this is the beginning of an exit strategy from the war on drugs. And obviously the creation of any legitimate market for marijuana is not good for the bottom line of any criminal syndicate, either in California or across the border.

CAVANAUGH: We have to take a short break. When we return, we will continue this conversation about Prop 19 and continue taking your calls, 1-888-895-5727. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS.

CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. We’re discussing Proposition 19 on the November ballot which would legalize marijuana possession in California and allow regulated sales of marijuana. My guests are Stephen Gutwillig. He is with the Drug Policy Alliance, a group that works to change America’s drug laws. And Roger Morgan, who is with the Coalition for a Drug Free California. We’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727 or urging you to comment online at Let’s take some calls. Peter is calling us from Encinitas. Good morning, Peter, and welcome to These Days.

PETER (Caller, Encinitas): Good morning. Good morning. I just am calling in to say that generally I’m in favor of legalizing marijuana use in the state but I have some real problems with the proposition process to do that. Generally speaking, because a proposition can only be altered by a vote of the large majority of the people, any mistakes that are made in the proposition are very difficult to modify. I would prefer to see a proposition that created some kind of board that would then regulate the sale of marijuana with no particular details given, something like that so there’s more freedom to sort of renegotiate the process as there’s experimentation with its use.

CAVANAUGH: Peter, thank you for the call. Jeff is on the line from San Diego. Good morning, Jeff, and welcome to These Days. Jeff, are you with us?

JEFF (Caller, San Diego): Yes. Good morning.

CAVANAUGH: Good morning.

JEFF: I’m actually a psychiatrist in private practice and I’m – I had a comment basically to say that legalizing marijuana would be an incredible psychiatric burden that would adversely affect, you know, the mental health of the entire county. I see patients who have been using marijuana for medical or other purposes and the impact that it can have upon their motivation, their memory, in addition to increasing the risk for schizophrenia is unbelievable. So I think the psychiatric adverse effects and liabilities far outweigh any monetary benefits. And I’ll take my responses off the air.

CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you, Jeff. Thank you for that call. And, Stephen, let me put this to you because a lot of people make a similar point and that is we already have enough trouble with legalized alcohol and to an extent now prescription drugs that people may or may not be using legally. Why should we add marijuana into the mix?

GUTWILLIG: Well, to the core of that question is the assumption that there’s going to be substantial increase in consumption if we start to regulate marijuana and there really is no evidence to support that. And I know Roger probably, you know, disagrees with that characterization but if you just look at the fact that the level of marijuana consumption in the United States is already extremely high without any relationship to what the penalties are locally or whether you live in a state that has medical marijuana already. I mean, Roger has spoken about the – what he considers to be out of control availability of medical marijuana. Well, if that’s true, then California has relatively equivalent marijuana consumption today as does the – as compared to the average in the country nationwide except when it comes to young people, in which we’re even closer to the national average. There is no reason to believe that there’s going to be an enormous spike in consumption or addiction. That being the case, addiction is a serious issue, and Roger and I would probably agree that a great deal more resources need to go into prevention and education and into treatment funding, none of which seems to be possible under a regime in which we ban marijuana outright, drive consumers to an enormous underground economy that doesn’t care how old you are or what kind of addiction issues that you may have. But the truth is about marijuana addiction, that marijuana is far less addictive than either alcohol or tobacco. You can’t die from a marijuana overdose. Addiction is not at all based on the potency of marijuana. The more potent marijuana is, the less individuals consume of it. And the vast majority of people that are admitted to – for marijuana addiction treatment are referred by the criminal justice system today. They’re doing it just to get out of some form of probation or potentially incarceration. And so we’re flooding treatment centers with people who aren’t clinically dependent on marijuana, they’re just doing it because that’s the thing that you would choose – that’s the option that you would choose if you were given the choice between that and some other form of – some other punitive response to being caught with pot.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Roger, I’m wondering, do you see the legalization of marijuana in California for adults as starting a host of social problems based on people smoking too much marijuana?

MORGAN: I think the RAM Study that was just done indicated that prices could drop by as much as 80% and consumption could double. Stephen may be right in saying we don’t have any firm evidence because we haven’t done it yet but if you want to compare it to alcohol after they repealed prohibition, the per capita consumption tripled. If that should happen with marijuana, which I believe it will, I mean, this black market for kids is not going to go away. 21 and under or 18 and under when their brains, as Jeff said, very accurately, because of brain scan technology, we know the impact now of this high potency pot on kids. And in San Diego, I’m told you have more kids smoking pot than tobacco these days. There’s a huge difference between a mind altering narcotic that causes irreparable harm to the brain in a teenager—you know, we don’t get them back. They end up on welfare. They don’t graduate from high school. According to UC Santa Barbara, that costs $392,000 per dropout. It diminishes their – At best, it diminishes their productivity. It quells their motivation. You cap a kid’s potential in life before they even get to adulthood. Is it going to increase with legalization? Absolutely.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s take another…

MORGAN: So what do you tell your kids? Don’t touch my home stash, I got 25 square feet here? This is mine.


MORGAN: I mean, we have a problem with prescription medicines because nobody locks their medicine cabinet, same with alcohol.

GUTWILLIG: I have to say to that that we, you know – We completely agree that it is a very serious issue and that young people should not be smoking marijuana. It’s not good for them. And that under the current system, I don’t think we could be doing a worse job of keeping marijuana out of the hands of young people. Roger’s exactly right. Young people in California are more likely to smoke marijuana than they are cigarettes and they consistently say that it is easier for them to access marijuana than for them to access alcohol. And so this – The obvious solution is to enact sensible regulations and age restrictions which would limit youth access. Marijuana…

CAVANAUGH: But Roger – but…

GUTWILLIG: …is obviously here to stay and we just have to stop moralizing and start managing it.

CAVANAUGH: But Roger makes the point if there’s more marijuana available just in general use, won’t that even increase the problem for younger people?

GUTWILLIG: It’s not at all clear that anything that Prop 19 does actually will increase the availability of marijuana. Marijuana is already widely available and widely consumed. This is about regulating and controlling what is currently completely chaotic and out of control. Except if you’re a drug criminal, you’re the one who gets to decide how much marijuana’s available, you know, and to whom you sell, and you certainly don’t give a darn what the age of your customers are. Regulated businesses ask for age, you know, for proof of age, criminals don’t.

CAVANAUGH: I want to try to get in a couple more calls. Anthony is calling us from San Diego. Good morning, Anthony, and welcome to These Days.

ANTHONY (Caller, San Diego): Good morning, and thank you for taking my call. My comment is regarding the black market for marijuana and how the proposition may have a huge affect on it. If people are legally allowed to grow marijuana, if, say, companies are legally allowed to grow marijuana, then there’s going to be, of course, a overabundance of marijuana. And as Roger mentioned earlier, the price will drop by a huge amount, 88%, I’m not sure. But with that huge influx of supply, that’ll put a whole lot of criminals out of business and allow regular citizens to take control of that market. Now there’s always going to be minors that are going to be trying to get ahold of these drugs like alcohol and cigarettes. I – As a recent high school graduate, I can vouch that there’s a lot of possession of those things by underage people but that’s going to happen anyway. If we don’t regulate what is going on already then it’s just going to get worse not better.

CAVANAUGH: Gotcha. Thank you. Thank you for the call, Anthony. Cody is calling us from Poway. Good morning, Cody. Welcome to These Days.

CODY (Caller, Poway): Good morning, and thank you for taking my call.

CAVANAUGH: You’re welcome.

CODY: I’d like to call – I’d like to point out that this is really about deregulation not regulation. This is about deregulation of personal life, about getting the government out of what we do day to day, and this is probably just a start. It’s also about freedom from a nanny government. But my question is how do you think that the feds will respond if this happens given how they responded to the medical marijuana act…


CODY: …earlier.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you. Thank you for that. And let me go to you first, Roger, on that. How – What do you think the federal government’s response would be if, indeed, Prop 19 passes?

MORGAN: I think you’re looking at chaos. Number one, as I mentioned earlier, automatically federal contracts that require a drug-free workplace would probably be terminated. That could cost us, say, 50 or 60 billion dollars. Any community that gets over $100,000 in federal funds for law enforcement and other things would automatically lose that money. I’m told that school funding would lose $9.4 billion dollars. Basically, the federal government has the primary responsibility to protect people. The laws that exist, the scheduling of marijuana is a Schedule I drug. That’s based on the best scientific evidence we have from the best people that we know of in the business. So basically no state in the United States has the right to legalize a Schedule I drug because it would imperil the health and safety of everybody in the United States. So I think one thing that would automatically happen is we would be confronted with economic sanctions. There’s no reason for the federal government to subsidize any state for all the problems that this drug would cause for crime and public health and mental health, education, welfare and traffic safety.

CAVANAUGH: Stephen, have you done – has your organization done any advance work into what the federal response might be if, indeed, California passes this law?

GUTWILLIG: Well, there are just some basic facts here which is that under our federal system, the states are not required to conform with and certainly not required to enforce federal drug laws. And that has been proven time and again with the enaction of – the enacting of medical marijuana laws in 14 states and the District of Columbia. And, you know, while I don’t, you know, I don’t envy anyone who has to defend the catastrophic status quo but what Roger describes as the results of the passage of Prop 19 are just simply not so. There really is no – there is no contradiction with the laws that govern drug-free workplaces or any of that because all we’re basically doing would be to bring marijuana in line with other – with the way prescription drugs, for example, are used. And, yes, marijuana is a Schedule I drug but the entire experience over the last 14 years with medical marijuana and the federal government ultimately has concluded with a political response from the Obama administration, which is to acknowledge that the states have the right to make their own decisions and to chart their own course with regard to marijuana, which means that the component of Prop 19 that decriminalizes personal possession is going – you know, would go unchallenged. There’s nothing new in that part of it. The states have – already have the authority to decide what the penalties should be for possession and consumption of marijuana. What’s new in Prop 19 is the component that would allow local governments to decide whether to regulate sales of marijuana within their jurisdictions for adults 21 and over. I would say that there is likely to be a challenge from the federal administration and it’s going to look like a court challenge. I would think that something this new would undergo some scrutiny within the courts. I would say that it’s likely that the courts would say that we do have the right to do that, but that’s, you know, it’s not going to be chaos, it’s simply going to be a process within the courts…


GUTWILLIG: …as I said before…

CAVANAUGH: …we have to leave it there. I’m sorry. We are just out of time. I want to thank you so much. Stephen Gutwillig and Roger Morgan, thank you both so much. I know that we’re going to be talking about this again. We’ve been discussing Prop 19 on the November California ballot. If you’d like to comment, please go online, Stay with us for hour two. It’s coming up in just a few minutes. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS.