Tuesday, Sep 28 2010 09:55 AM

No on Prop. 19: Pot initiative's issues too hazy

By The Bakersfield Californian

Proposition 19, which would essentially legalize marijuana in California, comes before the electorate at a time of economic malaise -- as a potential tool to raise state revenues and unburden California's law enforcement, court and correctional systems, thereby allowing them to focus on "serious" crimes.

The initiative, known officially as the Control and Tax Cannabis Act, would permit Californians over 21 to possess up to an ounce of marijuana for personal consumption, grow it at a private residence in an area that doesn't exceed 25 square feet, and smoke it/use it in a non-public place.

Sounds simple. But opponents of the measure, including business groups, many police organizations and most lawmakers, point out that the proposition, as written, leaves too many loose ends and unanswered questions.

Though we acknowledge that some of Prop. 19's goals are worthy, the initiative would likely cause as many problems as it would solve.

For instance, Prop. 19's backers think a legalized, controlled marijuana industry could eventually be regulated and taxed to the tune of as much as $1.4 billion per year to help fund health care, job creation, infrastructure and other needs. But the initiative doesn't offer guidance on how this might be coordinated -- in fact the taxation element isn't even written into the proposition.

Local governments would have the prerogative to prohibit commercial activity in the same way some states in the southeastern U.S. regulate alcohol with "wet" and "dry" counties. But in the case of marijuana, backyard "stills" will be legal everywhere, whether the county in question is a "wet" one or not.

Many California counties will choose not to allow regulated marijuana sales, depriving themselves of potential tax revenue and thereby encouraging an almost-legal black market -- which could simply price its product just below prevailing retail prices.

Prop. 19 advocates say legalization will not infringe on businesses' drug-banning policies, but legal ambiguities cloud the question of employer rights vs. employee rights. Marijuana's effect is not the same, or as easy to detect, as alcohol. Will employers still be able to screen job applicants for marijuana use if that drug is legal? How will fair employment laws figure into the scenario? If Prop. 19 passes, the Legislature will have things to sort out.

Others argue that we're losing the war on drugs, wasting billions and putting thousands behind bars for minor offenses. Legalizing marijuana, they say, will undercut the power of Mexican drug gangs that rely on steady U.S. demand. But regulated, taxed pot will be expensive enough that the cartels will still have plenty of market share.

Small quantities could be grown on private property, but how would a municipality control it? What's to stop a grower from covertly selling to neighbors and friends? What about property crime? Wouldn't a backyard full of marijuana plants make an inviting target for thieves? Adolescent fence-hoppers?

Law enforcement officials justifiably worry about a new surge of DUI cases. Then there's the conflict with federal law: No matter what states do, the feds still classify pot as an illegal drug, even if enforcement is inconsistent.

The backers of Prop. 19 should return to the drawing board and clarify these points. Until then, we endorse a no vote on legalization.

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