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It's High Time

Cannabis advocates offer preview of upcoming 2016 legalization push

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GOING MAINSTREAM Legalization depends on consensus building, say marijuana advocates.
  • GOING MAINSTREAM Legalization depends on consensus building, say marijuana advocates.

The Emerald Cup's 2016 marijuana legalization panel last weekend may have been in the only hall of the Santa Rosa Fairgrounds not smelling of skunkweed, but there was still plenty of buzz among the half-dozen speakers.

For the first time, competitive factions of the state's cannabis movement were at the same table to discuss what a legalization measure might look like. The good news for the California economy and the millions who enjoy the state's largest cash crop? A 2016 legalization measure will likely pass.

In 2010, Proposition 19 failed with 46.5 voting in favor. But a poll from last year following legalization initiatives in Colorado and Washington found that 65 percent of Californians are now likely to vote to end marijuana prohibition.

So the big question for panelists was not when but how—how will a legal cannabis industry work? The panel brought together representatives of the nation's largest legalization organizations and leading statewide activists and attorneys.

Steve DeAngelo, founder of Harborside Medical Center and the uncrowned king of California cannabis reform, took lead role as consensus builder.

"We've got to put our histories aside and come together," DeAngelo said. "The only way we get this done is if we do it California-style. We all sit down in a circle and we talk to each other until we've figured it out. If we don't, our California values of respect for nature, caring for our neighbors and diversity will be crushed."

DeAngelo warned that without a "collaborative consensus" document that represents advocates, growers, consumers, the incarcerated, industry workers and the state, then lobbyists for Big Tobacco, casino and agribusiness could create a legalization bill that would dominate and transform the industry.

"If we don't do it, they'll do it their way," DeAngelo said. "We've got to make damned sure that regulations protect the people who built this industry."

DeAngelo wants to adopt Colorado's policy of banning out-of-state investors and growers for three years, post-legalization. He believes small growers should be taxed at lower rates than large corporations, and that size limitations for cannabis farms might be useful.

This approach finds wide support. "We need to be politically active and come up with a solution, so that the people who are now doing what they're doing at least have a chance to be grandfathered in," said a Northern California grower in the business for decades. "We shouldn't have to be buying a $250,000 cultivation license. That's a consolidation of wealth; that's not a free market anymore."

Omar Figueroa, a prominent attorney based in Sebastopol, is an independent leader in the effort to craft a bill that benefits growers, whose expertise has made California cannabis the most sought-after on earth.

"It's good that a purple state like Colorado took the lead in legalization," Figueroa explained, "because neither party in a presidential election wants to alienate these voters. But now California has the most dedicated people, the most experience and the best strains. We need to regain our leadership with the best legalization law."

San Francisco civil rights attorney Matt Kumin, who helped California pass its medicinal marijuana bill in 1996, agreed. "We need to take the lead like in '96," Kumin said. "It's great that we can learn from the mistakes of others, because this group is going to make it right."

In 2010, California's Proposition 19 was panned as the poorly written product of a noncollaborative process. Lindsay Robinson, director of development for the Marijuana Policy Project, believes the 2016 California bill should follow the messaging road paved by Colorado. She says calling the California measure the "Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol" act could cut through the opposition's often-deceptive pushback.

Dale Sky Jones, chair of the Coalition for Cannabis Policy, will likely play a key role in 2016 legalization negotiations and suggested the measure might borrow a page from the recent push to release 10,000 low-level offenders from California prisons.

"I liked the 'Safe Communities, Strong Communities' title, and we might want to use something like that," Jones said.

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