California's Big Chance to Set the Gold Standard for Marijuana Policy

Ayrn Taylor, a United Food and Commercial Workers union (UFCW) member and employee at the Venice Beach Care Center, displays
Ayrn Taylor, a United Food and Commercial Workers union (UFCW) member and employee at the Venice Beach Care Center, displays medical marijuana during a media visit at the medical marijuana dispensary in Los Angeles, California February 6, 2013. The Venice Beach Care Center, is one of three medical marijuana shops in Los Angeles that are staffed by dues-paying union members. Another 49 dispensaries in the city plan to enter into labor agreements with the UFCW this year, the union says. REUTERS/Jonathan Alcorn (UNITED STATES - Tags: DRUGS SOCIETY HEALTH BUSINESS EMPLOYMENT)

"Marijuana is practically legal in California already."

Every time I hear this, which is often, I cringe. You certainly wouldn't hear this in any urban center from the people, largely black or brown, who bear the weight of our prohibitionist laws. You wouldn't hear this from the patient with a debilitating illness who lives in a city that has banned medical cannabis and risks a federal felony charge by having his medicine delivered through the US postal service. You also wouldn't hear that from the marijuana farmer in Humboldt who had her children taken away last year.

Despite medical marijuana being legal in California since 1996, and an ounce or less decriminalized since 2011, we still make over 13,000 felony arrests every year, with a total of 154,547 marijuana arrests for felonies and misdemeanors between 2010 and 2014. Of those, 90% are male, and with a statewide population of 7%, African Americans comprised 22% and 18% of those arrested for felonies and misdemeanors respectively, despite the fact that black Americans use and sell drugs at approximately the same rates as white Americans.

Fortunately, Californians will have the opportunity to support the Adult Use of Marijuana Act (AUMA), based on key lessons and guidance from Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Alaska, DC, and Uruguay, and is consequently the most advanced marijuana legalization measure to date.

AUMA establishes a clear line between personal use and commercial activity. If you are 21 or older, you can use, share, store, transport up to one ounce of dried flowers (8 grams of concentrate), and you can have up to six plants growing in your home. If you have any more product than that on your person you need to have a license, it's that simple. And there are 19 different license types under AUMA, everything from indoor cultivator license to an outdoor cultivator, a manufacturer, tester, retailer, and the list goes on to a special microlicense for small shops that can do it all, similar to a microbrewery or a boutique winery.

AUMA eliminates or reduces most marijuana offenses, proactively and retroactively, only maintaining sales to a minor, transfer across state lines, growing on public lands, and home butane extraction as felony offenses. This is going to vastly reduce the hundreds of thousands of people caught up in California's criminal justice system every year. As we have seen in Colorado and Washington, D.C., cumulative marijuana arrests rates dropped by over 80%, and 85%, respectively, in the first year after legalization.

AUMA also has a smart bold formula for allocating the tax revenue it will generate when fully implemented, estimated by the nonpartisan LAO office to reach up to $1 billion. After ensuring the new law is adequately funded and evaluated, hundreds of millions of dollars will be invested in the prevention of alcohol and other drug misuse, and the treatment of substance abuse disorders, with most of the money earmarked for youth. Funds will also be provided to aCommunity Reinvestment Fund that will grow to $50 million annually to support diversion and reentry programs supporting economic development, education, housing, and legal services in communities disproportionately harmed by drug war policies. Also a first, revenue will be dedicated to a special Environmental Restoration and Protection Account to fund cleanup, remediation and restoration of environmental damage to our state's public lands and watersheds. Additionally, funds will be used to staff and improve state parks. As with other recent measures, AUMA dedicates significant revenue to law enforcement, who will finally have both clear directives and sufficient funding to address those who continue to operate outside of the licensed market.

AUMA allows people harmed by the war on drugs to fully participate in the legal market. While a well-regulated legal market is certainly necessary to reduce the illegal market, as California's Blue Ribbon Commission on Marijuana Policy chaired by the Lieutenant Governor noted, there must be opportunities for those who have operated in the illicit market to enter the legal market. Under AUMA, a prior conviction for possession, possession for sale, sale, manufacturing, transportation, or cultivation of any controlled substance shall not be the sole basis for the denial of a license.

While AUMA is relatively prescriptive, there is also a good deal of flexibility masterfully woven throughout the law. For example, it currently includes a ban on large cultivator licenses (22,000 sq. ft.), as a way to give the small farmers a head start for the first five years. After which, the state legislature can decide whether they want to extend that ban by a simple majority vote or move to a fully open market. State and local tax rates can also change, subject to voter approval requirements imposed by state law. In addition, marijuana criminal penalties may be further reduced by a majority vote the state legislature, but they cannot increase them without a vote of the people.

And importantly, AUMA prohibits the marketing and advertising of marijuana to minors and near schools or youth centers and establishes strict packaging and labeling standards, including warning labels and child- resistant packaging, to keep marijuana products out of the hands of children. Bringing an ensconced underground economy under the rule of law is no simple task but I believe we have designed the best model for our unique California landscape, a system that reflects the wide array of community stakeholders.

Let's get it right for California, and let's make the Golden state the gold standard for marijuana policy and ending prohibition.

Lynne Lyman is California state director for Drug Policy Action, one of five backers of the Adult Use of Marijuana Act (AUMA).