A candid look into the near and possible future
I think here in California, we can understand $14 billion is something that can’t be blown off. The state deserves to have a piece of it. —San Francisco Assemblyman Tom Ammiano
March 2, 2010 Santa Cruz, California
While the rest of the nation continues to slide into economic despair, California, which legalized marijuana three months ago, is well on its way to recovery. In his State of the State Address last night, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger praised Assemblyman Tom Ammiano and other state legislators including John Laird and Joe Simitian for bringing the bill to his desk that removed “all penalties in California State Law on the cultivation, transportation, sale, purchase, possession or use of marijuana, natural THC or paraphernalia for persons over the age of 21.”
The bill taxes marijuana in much the same way tobacco, beer, wine, and spirits, and has thus far raised millions of dollars in tax revenue. Once one of the most financially beleaguered states in the country, the marijuana legalization has filled state coffers, freeing up state funds that were once used to combat the illegal drug. Additionally, the state is expected to save billions of dollars annually because it no longer incarcerates marijuana criminals.
“This state of California has always been the leader in the world with our movies, our technology and now this, ” Gov. Schwarzenneger said, holding an unlit, cigar-sized joint. The Governor says he does not intend to start smoking the substance himself, yet readily admits to imbibing in the past. “If my wife Maria had her way, she would rather I do smoke a doobie than smoke my cigars. This would probably be healthier for me and you know I am all about health. But she would like me to be a whole lot of other things,” the Governor added to much laughter and applause. Later, the Governor, who has a small bit part (playing himself) in a film called the Expendables that features a pro-pot message and mercenaries trying to overthrow a South American dictator, hosted a private party on the Capital Lawn in celebration of the successful bill he signed into law. Ziggy Marley was the musical guest and played a Peter Tosh cover song—twice.
Following California’s lead, other states including Oregon, Washington and Massachusetts (led by outspoken Senator Barney Frank), are rapidly pushing legalization legislation through their own state capitals. Arizona and Nevada, which has seen a rash of violence and large marijuana growing operations on federal lands since the Mexican Mafia drug cartels left California, are both considering similar legislation. Republican Senator Orin Hatch of Utah, who has strong ties to the vitamin supplement industry, also stated in a press conference last Tuesday that, “Yes, I believe marijuana is natural… for the most part.”
Most notably, however, President Obama issued a statement when California passed the law last year, saying that his cabinet and acting director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, Edward Junith, were looking at legalization on a federal level. More recently, when asked to unequivocally state his opinion on federal marijuana legalization during a press conference, the President said: “Look, I’ve said it before during the campaign and I’ll say it again: of course I inhaled. That was the whole point. Now I know this is a difficult issue and I know there will be a lot of states that say this is not for them. Well, that’s okay too. But states that do (want to legalize) then they should, and I pledge that the federal government will stay out of their affairs.”
The President also added that he passes the Bill of Rights each day in the White House on his walk to the Oval Office. “Our Founding Fathers knew what’s up. It’s probably printed on hemp.”
But not everyone is happy with the new law. Republican governors, house members and senators have vowed to fight any federal legislation legalizing the drug that comes their way. Mormon Church leaders are already raising money for extensive advertising campaigns to help stop legalization in other states including their own, Utah. And California marijuana growers, distributors and sellers say they fondly recall the days before legalization when they raked in huge profits.
With legalized and taxed marijuana growers now get only modest sums for growing the plant. “You don’t have to be looking over your shoulder anymore or up into the sky, but the black market was ever so awesomely kind to us,” says Mike Girschell, a Humboldt County grower who now farms an acre of the crop out in the open organically. “These days, I might as well be growing strawberries. ”
Other growers have adjusted to the falling markets by propagating stronger, organic strains of marijuana aimed at the burgeoning boutique markets, namely the pot cafes that have sprung like wineries after prohibition was repealed in the 1933.
Santa Cruz County on the Central California Coast took the lead long before the drug was legal. It has since reaped enormous benefits from the legalization. Housing prices are once again sky high, and the city has redirected the funds it receives from the marijuana tax towards education, health care and shoring up its crumbling coastline. Tourism is also at an all-time high with people flooding the county, a county that has been compared to the Napa Valley but with a decidedly more herb-scented twist.
Standing behind the counter of MMJ (Mademoiselle Mary Jane), an upscale pot café that serves 40-plus varieties of marijuana along with freshly made, gourmet sandwiches, is owner and manager Damon Orion. Once an underemployed underground music writer, he says business is booming with tourists coming from all over the country to sample his carefully selected, high-end wares. “I used to think I would never see this happen in my lifetime,” he says, pushing strands of long hair out of his eyes. “Now this day has finally come, and you know what, it’s…well…hard to remember those days before legalization.”
Recently elected Santa Cruz Mayor Chip!, whose parents failed to pass on a legitimate surname or heritage aside from a measly exclamation point, is also pleased with how the legalization has turned out for the city. “We were known around the country for our liberal, compassionate views on medical marijuana thanks to crusaders like Valerie and Mike (Corral, of WAMM). But we also have to remember that people come to Santa Cruz because of the arts, its music, its theater, which I now think rivals anything that New York City can muster.”
Others in Santa Cruz City government are taking a wait-and-see approach. Some believe that the new economy, fueled by taxed weed, might be a pipe dream to good to be true. “Before we build a salt water treatment plant, put solar panels one every downtown building, purchase Prius police cars or erect a floating stage in the San Lorenzo River for U2 and Radiohead to play here, I’d like to know if this economic model is sustainable,” says City Manager Peter Koht. “After all, unlike the media reports, this isn’t utopia. First, let’s take care of the homeless problem and figure out where we’re going to put all these artists that have flooded the city. We have the money to do it. We just need to find a way to spend it with prudence. Still, I have to say, I find it funny and not without a tad of irony that it took an economic crisis for us (Californians) to see the light through the smoke and mirrors of a failed drug war and policy.”
Down on the postcard pretty beach Santa Cruz Police Chief Howie Kerry eyes the swarms of tourists who have flocked to the area in search of a buzz and a little herbal enlightenment. Surfers, who once fought over waves, respectfully wait their turn, too stoned to raise a fist. Kerry says the local Santa Cruz populace have been smoking pot for so long that to them the excitement over legalization has already sort of burned itself out.
“But see all these people on the sand?” The Police Chief says in front of the Coast Hotel that is now booked at least six-months in advance. “I used to bust them when they’d be all loaded up on booze and what not. Now, they’re quietly stoned out of their minds like a bunch of sea lions without the bark.”
Chief Kerry says he “thanks his lucky stars” on his uniform that meth and heroin are still illegal, still wholly proven to be unhealthy and still a major societal problem. Otherwise, he adds, he’d be forced to lay off some his officers. Given all this, he says aggravated assaults, rapes, burglaries, and even traffic violations have fallen well below the norm since he’s been able to devote more officers to what he’s come to term, “serious crimes.”
“But I suppose there’ll come a day when I’ll be handcuffing a cigarette smoker,” he says. “Make sense, really, the way things are going.”