Written by The Business Journal Staff
With Golden State voters set to decide Nov. 8 whether to legalize recreational marijuana in California, both supporters and opponents of the controversial ballot initiative have shifted their campaigns into high gear.
Proposition 64, the California Marijuana Legalization Initiative, seeks to legalize recreational marijuana and hemp under state law — and establish a 15 percent sales tax at the retail level and a $9.25 per-ounce cultivation tax paid for by wholesalers.
Colorado, which legalized recreational pot in 2012, collected more than $135 million in marijuana-related taxes and fees last year and projects that amount could double in the next three to five years.
Analysts have projected legalization of recreational pot in California could generate up to $1 billion in annual tax revenue.
A group called Yes on 64 — also known as Californians to Control, Regulate and Tax Adult Use of Marijuana while Protecting Children — is leading the campaign to legalize recreational marijuana.
California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsome has been one of the ballot measure’s most fervent proponents. Prop. 64 is also being backed — and bankrolled — by Silicon Valley entrepreneur Sean Parker, who cofounded Napster and was the first president of Facebook. Parker has contributed $8.6 million to the “Yes on 64” campaign.
Another group, No on 64, which is sponsored by California Public Safety Institute and SAM Action, is leading the opposition.
The California Public Safety Institute is a coalition of law enforcement and conservative, faith-based groups that helped defeat — by 7 percentage points — a 2010 ballot measure that would have legalized recreational pot in California. On its website, SAM (Smart Approaches to Marijuana) Action bills itself as “a bipartisan alliance of organizations and individuals dedicated to a health-first approach to marijuana policy.”
Among the Valley’s highest profile opponents of the ballot initiative: the Greater Fresno Area Chamber of Commerce and Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims, who along with virtually every other major local or state law enforcement agency, is warning that the passage of Prop. 64 will lead to higher crime and drug addiction rates.
While the Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco Chronicle, the state’s two largest newspapers, have both endorsed the ballot initiative, the Fresno Bee’s editorial board has called Prop. 64 “half baked” and is encouraging a “no” vote.
A number of other Valley daily newspapers including the Bakersfield Californian, Sacramento Bee and the Porterville Recorder have also come out in opposition to Prop. 64
Arguing that approval of Prop. 64 represented “too many risks and unknowns,” late last week, the Santa Rosa Press Democrat also recommended voters reject the ballot measure.
“If we learned anything from California’s medicinal marijuana law it’s the danger of passing a poorly worded ballot measure with the intent to fix it at some later date,” the paper’s editorial board said. “Let’s not repeat that mistake by approving a proposition that potentially would create more problems than it would solve.”
The California Democratic Party has thrown its support behind Prop. 64 while the California Republican Party opposes it. While a host of prominent California Democrats at both the state and national level have endorsed Prop. 64, California Congressmen Tom McClintock and Dana Rohrabacher are the only two Republicans to cross party lines and throw their support behind Prop. 64.
Neither Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin nor California Governor Jerry Brown has taken a public position on Prop. 64.
The most recent polls show between 52 and 71 percent support for the initiative among voters, with that figure hovering around 60 percent since the beginning of August according to the website Ballotpedia.
If voters OK the ballot measure, California would join a handful of other states, including Washington, Oregon, Alaska and Colorado, allowing the sale and possession of up to one ounce of recreational pot to those over the age of 21.
Washington, D.C. also allows the sale of recreational cannabis.
In 1996, California was the first state in the nation to legalize the sale and use of medical marijuana, which today is legal in a majority of U.S. states.
Ballot measures to legalize recreational pot sales and use are also going before voters next month in Arizona, Nevada, Maine and Massachusetts.
The rise of recreational marijuana ballot measures in the U.S. can be traced to the start of the Obama presidency. The U.S. Department of Justice under President Obama has not prosecuted most individuals and businesses following state and local marijuana laws, although, at least technically, both medical and recreational marijuana remain illegal under federal law, which has so far kept U.S. banking institutions from getting involved in an industry projected to infuse up to $22 billion into the American economy by 2020.
In Colorado, where much of the marijuana is grown indoors in large warehouses, leasing industrial space in urban areas has become increasingly difficult for non-marijuana businesses because pot growers, at least so far, have been willing to pay premium rents.
Here in the Valley, if recreational pot becomes legal, most of it is expected to be grown outdoors and at least so far, area commercial Realtors are reporting little to no advance interest from marijuana businesses looking to secure industrial space — or farmland.
Several Valley communities, including Coalinga, which has leased a former prison facility to a medical cannabis oil production operation, have put out the red carpet for pot-related businesses, hoping the projected infusion of tax revenues will shore up their general funds.
Meanwhile, the potential to profit from the pot business holds little appeal for a number of other Valley communities. City councils in both Chowchilla and Clovis have preemptively passed resolutions banning the sale of recreational pot within their cities if Prop. 64 is approved.
“I for one do not want to see marijuana stores established in our downtown where our school kids walk by them every day and where our visitors and residents enjoy our community events,” said Chowchilla Mayor Waseem Ahmed. “Our council feels that if we are going to walk the talk of being a family friendly city, then we need to assertively project our quality of life – and it starts by controlling the recreational use of marijuana.”