In 1996, California became the first state to allow medical access to cannabis.
Twenty years later, the state is set to fully legalise cannabis as part of November’s ballot.
However, plenty is left to play for, and many questions remain.
In the time it has taken for California to fully legalise cannabis, approximately 24 other states have legalised, decriminalised or made cannabis medically available. There have been attempts, but hesitation has reigned in California, where campaigners have fallen behind their contemporaries back east.
Furthermore, what legalisation will look like in California is currently being hotly contested. At the time of writing, 18 ballot initiatives have been set in motion, representing between them the full spectrum of forms that legalisation can take. Come November, only one model will prevail and pass into effect statewide.
This is the first in a series of monthly articles on VolteFace covering the numerous twists and turns in California – where, to paraphrase Anita Chabria, the question has shifted from that of whether or not to legalise cannabis, but how.
So, before we zoom in on the various initiatives vying for the ballot, some scene setting.
How has California taken so long to reach full legalisation? The state has the largest economy in the USA (the 8th largest in the world), and (in the fulsome form of Hollywood) is a world leader in the Entertainment Industry.
The answer in short: too much infighting, and not enough funds (an oh-too-familiar combo for thwarted social reformers everywhere). The state fell short of legalisation in 2012 and 2014’s election campaigns due to a lack of unity between competing initiatives, with each group in disagreement over key components of legalisation – access, sourcing, funding etc.
These conflicts in approach boded poorly for California as whichever initiative crossed the line would have no support from the rest of the industry once legalisation came into the effect. Those representing the failed competitor initiatives would leave the victors in the lurch, and the industry would collapse in on itself – to misquote Abraham Lincoln: a house divided cannot legalise cannabis.
2016 – New Initiatives
What separates past shortcomings from the present push for legalisation is a fresh influx of attention from wealthy investors. One is very welcome to wonder why, with Silicon Valley’s digital frontier, Hollywood’s penchant for activism, and California’s magnetism for gainful fads and fixes, previous campaigns ran on relatively little funds. However, the stakes have since risen considerably, as Colorado’s success has shown that, in the business of cannabis, there is profit to be had.
Adult use of Marijuana Act
Current consensus places AUMA (or, the ‘Adult use of Marijuana Act’) at the front of the pack. Largely funded by Sean Parker, the veritable tech titan behind Napster (though, in my opinion, more famous for ‘dropping the “the” from ‘The Facebook’), AUMA’s big money backing gives it the edge in gathering the resources required to make the final ballot in time. As Chabria explains:
The California initiative process, which allows laws to be made directly by voters, would not limit how many marijuana legalization plans are put on the ballot. Each just needs to collect a required number of signatures based on the number of voters in the last gubernatorial election. This cycle, that means gathering 365,880 supporters in a 180-day time limit – requiring a costly battalion of clipboard-wielding workers, something most of the efforts other than the Adult Use Act likely lack.
Beyond the fear of being financially outmuscled by AUMA, competing initiatives view AUMA as a byword for ‘Big Marijuana’. The plethora of smaller companies, DIY-style growers and distributors that have sprung up in the decades prior to the passing of Proposition 215 face the threat of being shut out of the market, should AUMA prevail.
However, in essence, AUMA mimics the successful models used by the four states that have already passed full legalisation, and, with the failed initiatives of elections past in mind, AUMA’s success may well spell doom for small business, but it would come, some maintain, at the benefit of the consumer.
ReformCA (or, CA Cannabis Reform in Action)
Of all the initiatives that could pose a challenge to AUMA, ReformCA, formed by the California Coalition for Cannabis Policy Reform, has the best chance. In its formation, ReformCA represented a union of sorts between various smaller cannabis factions competing around legalisation.
However, the financial clout of AUMA has stifled the momentum of ReformCA, and as of last December, half the board of the aforementioned California Coalition for Cannabis Policy Reform, have decided to back AUMA. Major organisations in the drug policy reform sphere, including Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), and Students For Sensible Drugs Policy (SSDP) have given AUMA their blessing, further deflating the hopes of ReformCA.
Despite their relative sturdiness in comparison to their fellow minnow initiatives, ReformCA appears to have acknowledged that their chances of catching AUMA are slim as November’s election draws closer. In essentially ‘joining forces’ with AUMA, ReformCA has made a call for unison amongst campaigners, as they represent the best chance for full legalisation that California has had in decades. A chance, one can only suppose, that would be foolish for dedicated campaigners to let slip over semantics.
Nevertheless – as the best part of 9 months lies between campaigners and the election, potential is certainly there for further collusion, disruption and surprise.
After all, you can always count on Hollywood for drama.
Read our feature on the California’s own Amoeba Records, and the one year anniversary of their dispensary.