The “Why” Behind California’s Battle to Legalize Marijuana

In what is now being coined “the marijuana mid-term elections,” one state was notably missing from the pack that legalized marijuana: California.

California has had a surprisingly long and embittered fight with itself over legalizing marijuana. Why can’t California, once a leader in the cannabis movement, get its act together enough to join in the swell of legalization momentum? The following serve as some of the answers:

1. California’s cannabis community is divided. In all states that seek to go from legalized medical to legalized recreational, there will always be those within the medical marijuana community who will oppose legalizing recreational marijuana. This is because medical businesses are profiting from the existing situation and they do not want the change or competition or increased regulation that legalizing recreational marijuana might bring. In fact, some in the medical community fear the elimination of medical marijuana due to the legalization of recreational marijuana. Then there are those in the medical marijuana community who truly believe that marijuana should be used strictly as a medicine and that it is not akin to alcohol and should not be regulated as such.

There will probably always be at least some tension between the medical and the recreational marijuana communities.California’s existing situation makes that tension almost inevitable.

In California right now, medical marijuana faces virtually no state regulation or oversight and many medical marijuana businesses are thriving in the massive gray area of the law. Many in California’s large and entrenched MMJ industry are loathe to see legalization that could, at best, lead to regulation and competition and, at worst, lead to their having to close down. This sort of infighting does not lend itself to peaceably passing a legalization initiative.

2. California is a very large, economically diverse state. The bigger they are, the harder they fall. Compared to California, the states of Oregon, Alaska, Washington, and Colorado are all tiny marketplaces. In turn, the consequences of their legalization experiments will not have nearly the same social and fiscal impacts that legalization in California would have. California going legal scares many both within California and outside of it. Are we really ready for legalization in such a big state? What if it does not work? For all its problems, California’s economy is huge and diverse and overall doing pretty well. San Francisco, San Diego, Los Angeles, and Orange County are doing just fine without marijuana legalization and they are not desperate for the tax revenues or permitting fees that legalizing recreational marijuana would bring them.

3.  California has too many cooks in the kitchen. Legalization, especially in a state the size of California, is not a simple thing. Compromise must be reached on countless complicated and potentially divisive issues to make a law that can pass and that can actually work. Just by way of a few examples, who should be able to participate in the legal marijuana business? How should those people be chosen? And how should they be taxed? What will happen to medical marijuana in California after legalization?

Thus far, the multiple opinions of Californians have combined to create too many competing initiatives for legalization over the years, none of which have garnered enough financial backing or voter support to become serious contenders for passage. If California is going to legalize marijuana through a vote of its people, its recreational advocates will need to band together, under one uniform voice, behind a well-thought out set proposals.

4. The politics ain’t pretty. Politics have and always will complicate any legalization attempts and California is no different. Once state representatives and law enforcement get involved, the rhetoric around legalization can get pretty muddied, depending on personal and communal motivations. California’s governor, Jerry Brown, has made it pretty clear he’s not a fan of legalization, though his Attorney General does not seem to mind as much. Having state leadership hostile to legalization is not usually a good thing for legalizing.

5. It’s not really the “when,” it’s the “how.” The smart money is betting on California legalizing in 2016. But what still has not changed — and what must change for that to happen — is a clear plan on how California will regulate its legalized marijuana businesses. Within this one question are multiple important sub-questions relating to whether Californians will be ready by 2016: How will the state deal with its municipal authorities? What will the taxes be? Where can marijuana businesses locate? Will there be a limit on the number of operations allowed within the state? Who will be granted licenses to operate and what criteria will be used in the licensing decision? The questions go on and on.

Though we too believe that legalization will be on California’s ballot in 2016, it is not yet clear to us on what exactly Californians will be voting or if they’re going to be ready for that vote.

For more on California’s marijuana situation, check out the following: