With California green-lighting the world’s largest legal marijuana market, will Australia follow suit? By James Norman.
The case for legalised cannabis
At the Oakland Community Partners marijuana dispensary in the San Francisco Bay area the unmistakeable whiff of cannabis hits you from the street outside. After entering a small lobby where ID is checked, a bulky metal doorway is unlocked with a buzz, opening into the main cannabis showroom.
With its airy design, glass display cabinets and chestnut furnishings, the space is reminiscent of a high-end jewellery store. A steady trickle of buyers peruse the goods on display – including a range of vaping pens, capsules, cannabis candy and large glass jars from which the fresh marijuana buds are sold by the gram, ranging from $5 to $15 depending on the strain.
A tattooed African-American woman in her 30s purchases some chocolate chip cookies containing 40 milligrams of sativa cannabis. Behind her in the queue an older Caucasian man with a grey unclipped goatee buys prerolled joints for $45 for a packet of 10 in a stylish black box branded “Emeralds harvest pack”.
Billboards for marijuana-related products now greet visitors to California from the moment they leave the airport. It is promoted as part of the “wellness industry” promising users health and happiness through a massive range of products targeting several desired states, including bliss, desire and calm. Marijuana in myriad new forms is being widely marketed as a therapeutic aid in the life of creative professionals.
Welcome to the new reality of legalised cannabis in California. From January 1 this year in the United States’ most populous state, and two decades after California first approved marijuana for medical use, adults 21 and over can now legally grow up to six plants and possess up to an ounce of the drug. The Bureau of Cannabis Control has to date licensed 350 marijuana dispensaries, and the California Department of Food and Agriculture has licensed 3687 growers.
In the first three months of 2018, California has already collected more than $US60 million in cannabis tax revenue – a figure predicted to rise to $US5 billion yearly once the industry is in full swing, according to a study by the University of California Agricultural Issues Center. That would put pot sales tax revenue on a par with beer sales.
Californian voters approved marijuana for medical use in 1996. Twenty years later, voters approved legal use for any adults over 21 under Proposition 64 – also known as the Control, Regulate and Tax Adult Use of Marijuana Act – and allowed the state a year to draft regulations for a legal market that opened this year.
“The people of California spoke loud and clear when they voted to pass Proposition 64 back in November 2016,” says Alex Traverso, chief of communications for the Bureau of Cannabis Control in Sacramento.
“Now that cannabis is legal in our state, you’re seeing people with prior cannabis-related convictions start to expunge their records. Some cities in our state are even taking the proactive step of automatically expunging for those with prior convictions. As we’re only in the fifth month of our legal system, we’re still figuring out the economic impacts, but we’re certainly encouraged by the level of excitement and the level of engagement we’re seeing from people who want to get involved in the industry,” says Traverso.
Across the US, 29 states and Washington, DC, have adopted medical marijuana laws, and in 2012 Colorado and Washington became the first states to legalise recreational use. Since then, five other states and DC have passed similar laws, with Massachusetts set to begin retail sales next month. But California is different partly because of its size – as the world’s fifth-largest economy, it instantly becomes the largest market for legal recreational marijuana in the world.
To many Californians, the legalisation of marijuana for adult use is almost a formality. Obtaining weed up until now had been as easy as getting a medical recommendation card, and even those without the card have had little chance of prosecution. However, legalisation here has raised further tension between state and federal drug enforcement agencies headed by Attorney-General Jeff Sessions, a vocal opponent of legalisation whose Drug Enforcement Administration considers marijuana a Schedule 1 drug, placing it in the same category as heroin.
Around the corner from the Oakland dispensary is the Oaksterdam University, America’s first cannabis college. Here students from all over the world get trained in all facets of the cannabis industry – including cultivation, legal issues, business training and history.
When I arrive a lecture is being conducted on how to navigate California’s complex and evolving cannabis regulation laws. Executive chancellor Dale Sky Jones takes me into the plant-growing area where each student gets the opportunity to grow marijuana plants from seed. She says 35,000 students have passed through the university’s doors since it opened in 2007.
“We have a remarkably diverse student base, not just in terms of coming from all over the world but also in socioeconomic terms,” Jones tells me.
“We have heart surgeons, brain surgeons, lawyers, retired law enforcement professionals, clergy sitting next to people that never finished high school or went straight into the criminal justice system often because of cannabis. In many cases this is the one thing that kept them grounded because now in the United States something that you once went to jail for you can now get paid for.”
She also believes the work of the university has played a huge role in bringing about the legal reform. Jones says it was the Proposition 19 campaign – also known as the Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis Act – she and her colleagues put on the Californian ballot that was the action that caught the attention of the world.
“That campaign was really the shot that rang out around the world for legalising cannabis. It became the blueprint for the global campaigns that followed and how to not fall into the traps that were set for us. Someone had to go first – and that was us.”
She also points out that having a woman front the campaign rather than a white comedian or rapper helped to win over everyday Americans. “I am a mother of three and I was pregnant during that campaign. I had the look and the short sharp answers that Fox News appreciates. People who read more progressive media may not realise how much news time the conservative media really spends on this issue,” she says.
As the legal reform is still in its early days in California, Jones describes the period as a massive social experiment. “This is one of the largest social experiments we have undertaken in decades,” she says.
“With alcohol prohibition it was [former New York mayor Fiorello] La Guardia who said this policy is a failure and I will no longer support these racist laws. So they opted out of the prohibition laws 10 years before the feds did and several other states followed suit, including California. We are simply following the blueprint of how we bring about great change in this country.
“However, this will continue to be a social experiment until we change the federal law. That’s why it’s so important we remain vigilant and don’t get lazy now. I say to people, ‘Have you met federal Attorney-General Jeff Sessions?’ He is an attack dog and he is not friendly to this issue.”
Similar to Australia, opinion polls in the US show a steady increase over the past decade of those who believe marijuana should be legalised. According to a Pew Research Center poll, 61 per cent of Americans now support full legalisation, nearly double what it was in 2000 (31 per cent). Australian Greens leader Richard Di Natale points to similar support in Australia.
“The Australian people realise that the war on drugs has failed,” he tells The Saturday Paper. “Over seven million Australians have tried cannabis, and even before we announced, 55 per cent of Australians supported this change. Other countries like Uruguay and Spain have already moved to legalise, with Canada due to come on line in coming months and now even New Zealand are getting on board this change with a referendum. The Australian people know it’s time that we caught up.”
Earlier this year the Greens proposed to make cannabis legal in Australia through a planned Australian Cannabis Agency that would act as the single wholesaler between producers and retailers – similar to the system in California. Di Natale says this system would allow for consistent, quality-controlled products sold in plain packaging by trained professionals.
However, the Greens plan was immediately called “dangerous” by Australia’s conservative tabloid media and Labor leader Bill Shorten branded it “political clickbait”. The day after the plan was announced Health Minister Greg Hunt described marijuana as a gateway drug to other substances, adding: “Our job is to protect the health of Australians. This action by the Greens risks the health of Australians.”
Di Natale says the major parties are letting ideology and stigma determine their drug policy rather than considering evidence-based international policy. “Their approach is based on fear, which is a powerful motivator. However, I’m confident that the tide is turning,” he says.
“The current system has not deterred young people from consumption, instead pushing them towards criminal syndicates who profit from continued illegalisation, and saddling them with criminal records. Legalising cannabis reduces harm. International evidence supports legalisation as a harm-reduction approach, and the revenue raised in taxation, and redirected from the criminal response, would be redirected towards drug treatment, drug education and the broader health budget.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 9, 2018 as "Going to pot".
A free press is one you pay for. Now is the time to subscribe.