Prop 64, the Adult Use of Marijuana Act, and (More) Criminal Justice Reform

In November 2014 California voters enacted a seismic shift in criminal penalties for nonviolent property and drug crimes, Proposition 47.  In a few weeks (or already, if one casts her or his ballot by mail), California voters will again decide whether to change the state’s approach to drug policy in a way that realistically pales in comparison to Prop 47 and 2011’s Criminal Justice Realignment, but is nevertheless on plenty of people’s minds in Humboldt County and across the state.

Prop 64’s main impact would be to legalize the recreational use of marijuana for adults 21 and older.  In terms of regulating cannabis, the initiative largely tracks three bills passed by the state legislature – collectively called the Medical Cannabis Regulation and Safety Act – for which state and local regulations are currently being developed and implemented.  It would also impose a 15% excise tax on all marijuana sales, which the Legislative Analyst’s Office projects to result eventually in $1 billion of revenue earmarked for youth programs (60%), environmental protection (20%), and law enforcement (20%). 

However, one aspect of Prop 64 that seems to be getting overlooked is that the ballot initiative would also significantly ratchet back criminal penalties for most marijuana-related crimes.  Penalties for juveniles and adults between the ages of 18 and 20 adjudicated to have possessed marijuana for personal use will generally be limited to infractions and drug education, community service work, and, upon second convictions, drug counseling.  Adults 21 and older operating outside the regulatory scheme enacted by this measure and other state laws will be subject to – at most – misdemeanor penalties, unless they have prior qualifying convictions (prior strikes, sex offenses, or prior marijuana convictions) and/or are found to have engaged in some environmental harm while cultivating.  Consuming cannabis in public, possessing it while on school grounds, and driving while impaired will remain illegal, but unlike in Washington state, for example, the initiative measure does not expand the definition of driving while impaired by marijuana or increase penalties for any of these crimes – a conscious omission unpopular with law enforcement and other opponents of the measure.

Similar to Prop 47, the initiative would also include a retroactive component allowing individuals convicted of marijuana offenses that would have qualified as lesser crimes (or no crime at all) under the new law to petition the court for reduction to a misdemeanor or infraction, or an outright dismissal.  A court “shall” grant these petitions unless doing so would “pose an unreasonable risk of danger to public safety.”

Given the other consequences of Prop 64 and the decidedly more impactful criminal justice reforms enacted in California over the past five years, it’s no wonder that the criminal justice changes that would be effected by the law receive relatively little treatment in voter guides, Op-Eds, and the media.  However, Prop 64, the Adult Use of Marijuana Act, embodies another aggressive step away from penalizing cultivation, transportation, and sale criminally, and toward the new model of establishing and funding state and local cannabis regulations.  The wisdom of taking that step remains in the eye of the beholder; or in this case of direct democracy, the voter.