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Pandering Californian Pols Keep Fighting Losing War On Marijuana
Published on Tuesday, May 2, 2000
Pandering Californian Pols Keep Fighting Losing War On Marijuana
by Dan Hamburg
 
The war against marijuana took two interesting, and very divergent, turns last week. In Ukiah, California, the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors placed a measure on the November ballot to decriminalize the personal cultivation and use of marijuana. In Sacramento, the Assembly Public Safety Committee voted to reimpose California’s “Smoke a Joint, Lose Your License” law.

Mendocino County is where the state’s war on marijuana began 21 years ago. In a headline-grabbing event that helped fuel his gubernatorial ambitions, then-Attorney General George Deukmejian, accompanied by automatic rifle-toting, flak-jacketed agents, descended by helicopter on a northern Mendocino County garden. Since then, billions of dollars have been spent annually on all aspects of the marijuana war. Two decades later, the weed is more prevalent than ever.

The message from this state of affairs is so plain and simple that only a politician could miss it--prohibition doesn’t work. But the war on marijuana has never been about stopping marijuana use so much as it has been about pandering to a public that is legitimately concerned about health and safety, especially the health and safety of children. Pandering is where Governor Gray Davis and the Assembly Public Safety Committee come in.

The “Smoke a Joint, Lose Your License” mandate was devised by the Bush administration as an attack on California’s marijuana decriminalization law under which possession of less than an ounce is deemed an infraction rather than a misdemeanor. To this day, the feds withhold transportation funds from states that refuse to take driver’s licenses from drug offenders, regardless of whether the drug offense has any relationship to operating a vehicle. States that don’t wish to abide by the mandate can “opt-out” with the signature of the governor. Thirty-two states, including every state west of Texas, have taken advantage of the “opt-out” option. Despite polls showing that two-thirds of Californians disagreed with him, former Governor Pete Wilson chose to support the Bush mandate. That Wilson law is due to expire in July 2000.

Now, to the shock of many of those who supported his bid for high office, Governor Davis has made it clear that he wants the Wilson policy extended. This despite the fact that California will be forced to continue spending millions processing minor pot offenders, whose charges would otherwise be dismissed with a ticket, to come back to court in order to defend their licenses. This despite the fact that the law Davis supports, AB 2595, would make it a worse offense to have a joint in your pocket or purse at home than to be caught speeding, driving recklessly, or with an open liquor container in your car.

In the halls of the State Capitol, our leaders, eager to prove how much they care about kids and despise crime, sip their martinis and condemn pot smokers. Many of them have no doubt “experimented” themselves. Even more no doubt have children who have. When those kids get in trouble they are typically “diverted” from the system, given clemency due to the extenuating circumstance of having a powerful parent. For the rest of our kids, and ourselves, it’s “smoke a joint, lose your license,” or worse.

The governor and our misinformed state legislators need to pay heed to the discussion now going on in Mendocino County. Sheriff Tony Craver signed the initiative to legalize the personal cultivation and use of marijuana. He did this not because he supports marijuana use but because as a longtime law enforcement official he has seen that prohibition is a bust. If the initiative passes, he believes it will “send a message to policy makers in Sacramento and Washington that despite decades of efforts to suppress marijuana, the number of users and amount of plants seized continues to increase.”

Mendocino supervisors were urged by County Counsel Peter Klein to perform their ministerial duty of putting the initiative on the ballot, but then to challenge its legality in court. Klein argued that the initiative was unenforceable because it preempts state and federal laws prohibiting the possession and use of marijuana. However, as Supervisor Richard Shoemaker pointed out, Proposition 215, the 1996 “medical marijuana” initiative, purportedly had similar problems and is now being successfully implemented. Supervisor David Colfax reminded the Board that it would be “bizarre” to challenge the marijuana initiative while continuing to subsidize the county’s robust wine industry. The Board, which has a conservative majority, voted unanimously to reject their counsel’s advice and move forward to a test of the voters’ will in November.

Perhaps it should come as no surprise that it is in the county where the pot war got started that it’s now winding down. Mendocino County has experienced many of the negative effects of illegal pot. Millions of dollars spent by law enforcement, skewing priorities and clogging the courts. Thousands of casual users arrested, sometimes imprisoned and left with indelible marks on their records. The hypocrisy of preaching against pot while pushing more dangerous drugs. A culture of greed and occasional violence brought about directly by astronomical prices. The unseemliness of an economy whose largest cash crop is an illegal weed.

Mendocino County has learned the hard way and is finally on the right track. Threats and bullying don’t work. Lose your home. Lose your freedom. And now lose your license. Too bad the politicos in Sacramento seem once again to have lost their minds.

Dan Hamburg, a former member of Congress, is executive director of Voice of the Environment, a Bolinas-based nonprofit.

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