Marijuana Reform Advocates Face Uphill Financial Battle In California
But this latest push might not have the significant economic impact many legalization advocates had hoped.
Earlier this month, California Secretary of State Debra Bowen cleared Prop. 1518 for proponents to start collecting signatures to add the initiative to next year’s ballot. The measure would limit punishments doled out for cultivation, sale, transportation and possession of up to two ounces. Adults charged with small-scale pot crimes would pay maximum fines of $250.
In rallying support for their cause, supporters of marijuana law reform in California have said loosening restrictions would save the state a bundle in enforcement and prosecution costs. In a 2009 report, the state’s chapter of NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) broke down the costs of marijuana enforcement, which drain $200 million from the state each year.
The group found $73 million went toward the ailing prison system to incarcerate 1,500 prisoners at roughly $49,000 a year. Misdemeanor court costs, which would theoretically diminish under Prop. 1518’s reclassification of petty possession, accounted for $6.1 million.
But the proposed change would not necessarily do away with these hefty expenses.
“The difficulty is that the initiative only impacts a narrow segment of marijuana crimes,” said Aaron Edwards, a legislative analyst among those who evaluated the fiscal impact of the proposal. “...good data for how many people are arrested for less than two ounces [doesn't exist]."
That hasn’t discouraged the man behind the reduced penalties initiative, political consultant Bill Zimmerman.
“Our argument doesn’t rest on fiscal savings,” he said. “It’s not about saving money—it’s about criminalizing a common behavior.”
Current state law considers cultivation a felony, but California residents who grow for personal use are eligible for diversion as long as there is no evidence of intent to sell. Transporting or giving away, not selling, amounts less than one ounce is a misdemeanor with a maximum fine of $100.
To Zimmerman and other marijuana advocates, even these penalties are excessive.
“It doesn’t make sense to criminalize behavior 15 percent of the public already engages in,” he said.
That figure did little to aid the legislative analyst’s office in their review of the initiative. Edwards’ office submitted an inconclusive review to Attorney General Kamala Harris in October.
By their estimates, the measure would result in “unknown savings to state and local governments on the costs of enforcing certain marijuana-related offenses, handling the related criminal cases in the court system and incarcerating and supervising certain marijuana offenders.”
Former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger attached greater economic weight to a lesser measure when he decriminalized possession amounts up to one ounce last year.
“In this time of drastic budget cuts,” he wrote in the signing statement for Senate Bill 1449, “prosecutors, defense attorneys, law enforcement and the courts cannot afford to expend limited resources prosecuting a crime that carries the same punishment as a traffic ticket.”
Under the bill, offenses are treated as infractions instead of misdemeanors, yielding $100 fines but no criminal record.
Schwarzenegger’s decision to ease penalties fell in line with public consensus, according to Zimmerman’s background research in drafting the current proposition. But his findings also revealed that while many feel low-level marijuana offenders should not face jail time, few are ready for full legalization.
“If it did end up on the ballot,” Zimmerman said of Prop. 1518, “it would likely repeat Proposition 19’s experience with only 40 percent positive vote.”
Also known as the Regulate, Control & Tax Cannabis Act, Prop. 19 brought legalization to the ballot last year, but voters ultimately rejected it. Marijuana reform advocates are still unclear on whether California’s polarized view of legalization will help or hurt their chances this time around, but Zimmerman hopes the secret lies in meeting the public where they are.
“We want to provide people with a more practical alternative than what most of the community is working toward,” Zimmerman said. He expressed hope that advocates across the pot reform spectrum could come together to find some middle ground short of full legalization.
But he conceded this wouldn’t guarantee success for further reduced penalties.
“Whether the people rise to that alternative remains to be seen,” he said.
A veteran of marijuana law reform in California, Zimmerman is responsible for the initiative that legalized medical marijuana in 1996 and the 2000 measure that gave offenders a choice between jail time and drug rehabilitation. And while he thinks the public will be open to his compromise, finding financial backers remains a serious obstacle.
He and other backers will need to generate between $1 and $2 million to collect enough signatures to get Prop. 1518 in front of voters next year. They have until April 5 to secure signatures from 504,760 registered voters, 5 percent of total votes cast in the 2010 gubernatorial election. Then, the expensive process of campaigning begins.
“In the past, we were working with people who had the funds to mount a campaign.” Zimmerman said. “In this instance, that’s not the case.”
But Zimmerman seemed determined to recruit funders to a proposition with what he called a more reasonable approach to marijuana reform.
He likened the state’s current restrictions on marijuana use to prohibition, pointing to the failure of predecessor. He said his initiative offers something of a compromise.
“Our goal is to allow this behavior,” he said, “Not encourage it through legalization. But not criminalize it either.”
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