Adult-use cannabis skeptics ask: do we really need another law?

Commentary by R.E Graswich

There's one big question hovering over the November adult-use marijuana initiative in California.

Is this even necessary?

It's a question advocates for the ballot measure, known as Prop. 64, are trying to sidestep as they gear up for the campaign.

So far, proponents have focused on more visceral appeals, mostly having to do with time's passage and the ubiquitous presence of cannabis in California. The argument goes, let's make marijuana legal now because after all these years, it's the right thing to do.

But instinctive arguments fail to address the deeper question of whether Prop. 64 represents just another unnecessary addition to the state constitution. Or more sinisterly, whether Prop. 64 is really a special-interest play by hedge funds and global investors such as big tobacco and the liquor industry to carve out a new billion-dollar profit center.

The question -- is this even necessary? -- has no connection with the old Reefer Madness and Gateway Drug mentalities. It's a question that reflects the enlightened realities of California cannabis, circa 2016. 

Today, any grownup in the state who wants marijuana can legally obtain the product for personal use. Medical recommendations are easily available. Cannabis dispensaries operate in or near most metropolitan communities. The quality is dependable. The market for manufactured varieties is robust. Cultivation for personal use is generally allowed. And zealous law enforcement is a dark chapter from the past, at least where personal-use limits are concerned.

In other words, if a majority of voters approves Prop. 64 in November, almost nothing will change. The biggest difference will be the emergence of large-scale cultivators and manufacturers moving into the state to stake out prominent positions in the retail cannabis market. 

Unlike the regulatory package signed last October by Gov. Brown, language in Prop. 64 opens the field for large operators to vertically integrate the market after 2023. They can grow and manufacture the product and sell cannabis in their own retail stores. 

Medical cannabis regulations from 2015 block vertical integration by prohibiting big growers from also holding retail licenses, similar to rules that govern the manufacturing, distribution and sales of beer, wine and spirits.

Prop. 64 moves cannabis away from the alcohol model, referred to as the "three tiered" system, that has guided the state's booze industry since Prohibition ended.

The "is this even necessary" question is being raised by legacy growers and law enforcement groups. They are answering with a "no," citing both the vertical integration concern and the argument that the state already has plenty of cannabis.

Growers and law enforcement worked together last year to craft the legislative package that broke a 19-year deadlock over marijuana regulations. One year later, many of the same allies are working to defeat Prop. 64.