December 27, 2018

Opinion: California Legalization Is Lumbering to Life

California’s legal cannabis industry is lumbering to life. But you wouldn’t know it from the groans of the industry and its critics. That’s too bad. Because as we near the end of the first year of legal cannabis sales in California, you can look back on some major hurdles overcome.

  • There’s criminal justice savings.
  • There’s unprecedented tax revenue.
  • And we regulated on one of the state’s biggest industries for the first time.

Let’s start with criminal justice:

California had cannabis prohibition for more than 80 years before we legalized it in 2016. At its peak, police made over 100,000 arrests per year for marijuana.

The state’s Legislative Analyst’s Office estimates we were spending more than $100 million dollar per year on trials and prison cells for those pot cases. That’s mostly over.

Just 6,000 marijuana arrests occurred in California in 2017 and the number promise to drop further this year. That’s for a state of 38 million people.

Prosecutors have released countless thousands of suspects from county jails, where they sitting, unable to afford bail, and awaiting trial for activity that’s no longer a crime. Prosecutors have also dismissed many more thousands of marijuana cases that were pending from before Prop 64 took effect.

And then thens tens of thousands of citizens using Prop 64’s expungement to clear their old records in order to get housing, and jobs. Automatic expungement became the law of the state this fall, affecting millions of Californians. Where’s the news reports on that?

Next up, is taxes.

Yes. They keep coming in below projections. California might take in less than $600 million in cannabis taxes for 2018. The target goal is $1 billion in annual tax revenue.

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But halfway to your target, in year one, looks like a win to me. Especially when you consider Massachusetts and Maine also legalized in 2016, and not a single cent in taxes had been collected there, because regulators blocked or delayed implementation. Massachusetts opened just this fall.

It’s not a matter of the the glass being half empty or full. We’re lucky there’s a glass at all. 65 percent of California cities and counties still ban all legal cannabis commerce.

Then there’s the new era of regulations that began this year. Yes, it’s been turbulent — everyone knew it would be. Cannabis is a $10 billion state industry, and regulators started from scratch. But they’ve consistently met or beat deadlines — unlike their peers. State regulators beat the odds and got sales started on Jan. 1. They went on to license more than 1,200 active businesses this year. They inspected 800 stores and began shutting down unlicensed shops. They oversaw the testing of 17,000 cannabis batches for purity and labeling. All legal cannabis in the state is now in child-resistant packaging.

And we had no major recalls or public health scares like you see regularly with e.coli on lettuce, or kids eating tide soap pods.

This November, the BCC beat deadlines again — issuing the first annual licenses to fully background checked, fingerprinted cannabis operators.

Yet still, watchers carp about the robust black market.

Looking For Legal Cannabis? Leafly Has All Your Local Menus

‘People are still going to their dealers. Weed is cheaper on the street than it is in the store.’

Yup. We need to ask ourselves a big question: what’s a reasonable timeline for ending the illicit market?

When it came to alcohol, federal prohibition lasted 13 years, but it took decades to unwind that failed experiment. Pot prohibition, which is still the federal law of the land, could take even longer. When you consider broad sweep of California’s cannabis history, 2018 looks like a reasonable step in the right direction.

Yes, it’s been a slow, heavy, and awkward. But real, lasting change always is.

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