Propositions 19 & 215
In just over a month, on the 2nd of November 2010, California will go to vote on Proposition 19. Proposition 19 is the proposition to legalise the consumption and sale of cannabis with a few small provisos:
1. It is not permitted to take cannabis anywhere near a minor
2. The government retains the right to penalise drivers who are caught driving under the influence of cannabis.
3. The government permits employers to retain the right to reprimand or fire employees who show up to work under the influence of cannabis.
4. Sale of cannabis to and possession of cannabis by minors is prohibited.
5. Licences will be issued to a select few firms every year that permit these firms to grow and sell cannabis on an industrial scale.
6. Individuals will be permitted to grow their own cannabis, provided that the patch in which they are growing it does not exceed an area of five feet by five feet.
7. Individuals are not permitted to possess more than one ounce of cannabis at any time.
The impacts of this bill are very clear – the fact that people can grow their own cannabis and the fact that there are firms that can mass-produce cannabis for sale mean that the price of cannabis will go through the floor. Prices of cannabis in California are currently around US$375 per ounce (though this value as variable, as it is a parallel market and not controlled by the government). Economists have predicted that the price for an ounce of cannabis may drop as low as US$40 per ounce, a significant reduction. This will almost completely shut out the black market for cannabis as there will be a massive loss of available revenue.
So will this massive price drop lead to an equally massive increase in cannabis smokers? That’s hard to tell. Data is scarce with regards to the effects of legalising cannabis on its market. We can take lessons from the Prohibition of Alcohol Act of 1920 in the United States, which showed that illegalising alcohol did not significantly reduce its consumption, but the same conclusion may not be valid for cannabis as alcohol is a more addicting drug. Furthermore, the data from Prohibition show only what happens when a previously legal good becomes illegal – it is unclear of the same effects occur when the process is in reverse.
Alternatively, it is possible to look at what happened in the Netherlands. Possession and sale of cannabis is still illegal in the Netherlands, but both have been decriminalised offences. The government even went further and announced that although it would not be legalising cannabis, their law enforcement would be instructed to “tolerate” sales of cannabis from coffee shops and consumption of cannabis in Amsterdam, the capital city of the Netherlands. For all intents and purpose, we are able to treat Amsterdam as a city that has legalised cannabis. So what effects has Amsterdam suffered? Surveys have shown no statistically significant increase in the number of cannabis smokers, despite the decriminalisation. Again, however, the validity of this comparison to the legalisation of cannabis in California is not completely valid. Firstly, there is still some aspect of illegality; those who hold the law in high regard will avoid cannabis because it is still illegal. Secondly, Amsterdam only tolerates small-scale sale of cannabis and therefore there is no mass-production. The reason cannabis prices are predicted to drop so low after legalisation in California is that there will be mass-production by the firms which are licensed to sell cannabis, meaning that these firms will become more efficient as they produce more, an economic concept known as “economies of scale”. Since the coffee shops in Amsterdam do not benefit from the same economies of scale, the prices in Amsterdam for cannabis have not dropped as drastically as the prices for cannabis in California are expected to do. This smaller decrease in price may not be enough to invite larger consumption, whereas California’s larger decrease in price may well cause an increase in cannabis consumption.
The Proposition has had varying support over the last six months, but recently a problem has arisen. There exists a small group of people who, despite being advocates of cannabis being legalised, are planning to oppose the bill in the polls. The reason for this is that they claim it restricts freedoms already granted by an existing Proposition: Proposition 215.
Proposition 215 grants doctors the power to issue cannabis prescriptions in the form of medical marijuana cards. These cards give the holder the right to possess, smoke and buy cannabis from special dispensaries which are already widespread across California. Under Proposition 215, there are far fewer restrictions on what an individual with a medical marijuana card can do. Patients with medical marijuana cards can currently possess and grow as much cannabis as they want and smoke it wherever they want. The argument made is that Proposition 19 will come as a reduction of freedoms to those who already use cannabis legally for medical purposes and that people should vote ‘no’ accordingly. Unless a bill is passed without these restrictions, they say, then it is a reduction of rights.
The problems with this argument are manyfold. Firstly, the restrictions put in place by Proposition 19 are not, by any means, harsh. Medical users should have no problem growing enough cannabis to use medically in a 5’x5’ growing area. Furthermore, they should have no need of any more than an ounce of cannabis to treat themselves. Again, a medicinal user should not have a problem keeping their use to private locations like at home. These are not restrictions that are particularly damaging to the health and wellbeing of medical cannabis users. Secondly, less than 1% of California’s population currently possess medical marijuana cards. Saying that it is ‘unfair’ to enact Proposition 19 to cause a significant increase in the majority of the population’s freedoms at the cost of a very small degree of 1% of the population’s freedoms is completely untrue.
So there we have it. For those of you who are undecided, or who are having second thoughts about voting yes due to concerns over Proposition 215, make sure you do the right thing. Go to the polls on the 2nd of November and vote yes on Proposition 19!