Cops Fight for Their Right to Bust You for Weed

The marijuana legalization initiative that will be on the November ballot in California is a disappointment to many in the cannabis decriminalization movement. California NORML, the granddaddy of political pot groups, has not fully endorsed it.

These critics say that Proposition 64, which will allow Californians 21 and older to possess up to one ounce of marijuana, is about as conservative as it could be without defeating the very purpose of legalization, which is allowing folks to enjoy weed without fear of arrest.

"It's 60 percent legalization," Ellen Komp, deputy director of California NORML, told us earlier this year.

Some observers say that the point of Proposition 64's many restrictions — cities would still be able to ban dispensaries, marketing to minors would be prohibited, and illegal possession would still be punishable — is to make it more palatable to law-and-order voters.

But the biggest law-and-order voters in the Golden State — cops themselves — are also the biggest opponents of Proposition 64, also known as the Adult Use of Marijuana Act.

"This is not a law-enforcement jihad or Reefer Madness," says the city of Ventura's top cop, Ken Corney, president of the California Police Chiefs Association. "But Proposition 64 isn't about green, leafy marijuana that people smoke at home or pass across the aisle at a concert. It's a for-profit play to bring the commercialization of marijuana to California."

He subscribes to the theory, so far unproven, that the proposition's biggest financial backer, Holmby Hills tech billionaire Sean Parker, is in it to open the door to Big Marijuana profits for rich folks like himself.

Corney's group is front-and-center among organizations opposed to Proposition 64. But the association actually endorsed medical marijuana regulation in California, a successful trio of Sacramento bills (the Medical Marijuana Regulation and Safety Act, or MMRSA) enacted in September 2015 that will standardize state and local licensing for dispensaries come 2018.

While proponents of Proposition 64 say legal sales will essentially abide by MMRSA rules, Corney says the initiative is a sleight of hand.

"I think it's pretty clear an initiative that doesn't follow the regulatory scheme we agreed to [with MMRSA] and that was signed by the governor skirts around regulations," Corney says. "This is not the way to craft public policy on a drug such as marijuana."

The board of the directors of the California District Attorneys Association agrees. It recently voted unanimously to oppose Proposition 64.

"We believe that Proposition 64, as drafted, significantly weakens existing regulations governing medical marijuana and would ultimately be detrimental to public safety in California," says the group's CEO, Mark Zahner.

Law-and-order proponents are concerned that Proposition 64 would allow Big Tobacco–like companies to take over the marijuana business. They bemoan a lack of DUI enforcement standards for drug-impaired drivers. They argue that full legalization will expand weed retailing throughout California and expose more children to the drug.

And they say the state's medical marijuana scheme has taken us as far as we need to go with pot. Thanks to Arnold Schwarzenegger's signature, even if you are caught with a small amount of weed and no doctor's recommendation, you're only eligible for a ticket. And many police forces, L.A.'s included, don't really enforce small-time pot violations.

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"Ask law enforcement," says Scott Chipman, the Southern California chair of Citizens Against Legalizing Marijuana. "They're not looking for marijuana users now. Right now we have backdoor legalization. The problem in California is we have too much marijuana."

Meanwhile much of the data on the good and bad of legalization is under dispute.

The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety concluded in May that "fatal crashes involving drivers who recently used marijuana doubled in Washington after the state legalized the drug," according to an Auto Club of Southern California statement.

The study looked at numbers from January 2010 through Dec. 31, 2014, an AAA spokesman said. However, legal recreational sales in Washington didn't begin until July 8, 2014, giving researchers a limited window.

The study also concluded that states that have already established marijuana DUI limits should repeal them. "There is no science showing that drivers reliably become impaired at a specific level of marijuana in the blood," the Auto Club states. 

Indeed, there's no blood alcohol level equivalent for cannabis, and the drug can stay in one's system long after you're sober. Medical marijuana advocates have long decried blood-alcohol standards for pot, saying they could essentially end up putting sober medical marijuana patients behind bars.

Yet Proposition 64 pledges $3 million in pot tax over a span of five years to the California Highway Patrol so it can "establish DUI protocols," in the words of the Drug Policy Alliance.

Another aggravation for pro-cannabis groups is the law-and-order contention that legalization leads to more teen drug use. Rates of teen pot use remained essentially the same before and after full legalization in Colorado, the state's Department of Public Health and Environment found.

"It's a total lie, damn it," says Dale Gieringer, state coordinator of California NORML. "There are a number of studies that say youth use has gone down. It's really unambiguous. To claim anything else is ignorant."

If this is the case, then what are cops really after in their efforts to stop legalization?

"They like to be able to arrest people," Gieringer says. "Marijuana is a good excuse for them to search cars and maybe find other things. Prohibition is a crime creation program whose only benefits are for law enforcement and drug dealers and not tax-paying citizens."

Corney of the police chiefs association disagrees. His opposition stems from the ways in which he believes legal weed would affect everyday Californians.

"Enforcing the law isn't what police agencies do anymore," he says. "We enhance quality of life. And we do it from a view on the dance floor nobody else has. We're not advocating for our profession, we're advocating for our communities."

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