California's Marijuana Legalization Dilemma

Leon Mezzetti, Criminal Defense Attorney, Marijuana Lawyer

California may be on a collision course with the federal government when it comes to drug policy. The state recently passed Proposition 64, which removed marijuana and its derivatives from California's controlled substances statutes and established a regulatory scheme making recreational marijuana accessible to adults over 21 years of age. Consistent with its purpose of legalizing marijuana in California, Prop 64 also precludes state and local assistance to federal agencies seeking to enforce federal marijuana laws within the state.

While the federal government has implicitly accepted state decriminalization of marijuana for medical use in California and other states, it has not previously had to deal with the sort of widespread marijuana legalization enabled by Prop 64. The federal government will be forced to choose between largely ignoring federal marijuana law violations or dramatically stepping up resources to enforce federal marijuana laws without state or local cooperation. Either way, the likely outcome is an arbitrary enforcement scheme in which most Californians producing, selling or using marijuana do so freely, while those few ensnared by federal authorities suffer criminal penalties.

With local and state law enforcement currently responsible for 95 percent of the country's marijuana arrests - there were nearly half a million marijuana arrests in California between 2006 and 2015 - the significance of California's legalization scheme to evenhanded application of federal drug policy is tremendous. Californians who produce, sell or use marijuana could find themselves caught in the crosshairs of federal agents determined to quash California's move toward independence from federal drug laws.

On the other hand, with an October, 2016 Nationwide Gallup Poll showing support for marijuana legalization at an all-time high, California may have chosen the optimal time to largely decriminalize the drug. Nationally, 60 percent of the population favors legalization of marijuana. In California, support for marijuana legalization is also favored by a majority- Pegged at 58 percent by polls cited by the Drug Policy Alliance. The number of Americans supporting marijuana legalization has grown steadily to record levels in the past decade.

If California prevails, Prop 64 may be hailed on several fronts for clearing overcrowded prisons of nonviolent marijuana offenders and shoring up the state's budget with a badly needed $3.1 billion.

What remains to be seen is whether legalization through Prop 64 would be the first nail in the coffin of unpopular federal drug policies or whether the federal government would pour resources into crushing the rebellion.

For further reading: Cannabis in California, Wikipedia