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July 12, 2010

Ashton: Is answer to cannabis conundrum in voters' hands?

I wouldn't call it a junket, but one of the most fun assignments you can get as a rookie reporter is to tromp along with police on an outdoor marijuana bust.

Fly in on a helicopter. Check out the full arsenal of a SWAT unit. Call in a front-page story from the field.

In all the action, it's hard to stop and say, "What good came from this raid, from this expense of your tax dollars?"

There's no real dent in access to marijuana, and officers almost never catch the drug dealers who set up the grow. It's too easy for the grunts doing the heavy lifting to slip out while officers approach.

Tuolumne County sheriff's deputies seized 223,555 marijuana plants earlier this month in a record bust, but the drug is no less accessible on the streets of Sonora.

That sums up the state of marijuana cultivation in California today as voters weigh whether to legalize the recreational use of cannabis by way of a November ballot measure.

With eyes wide open, Californians get to decide whether cannabis deserves a full crackdown from law enforcement, and whether decriminalization would crimp the drug cartels that thrive in the illegal market.

The initiative's called "Tax Cannabis" and an estimate from the Board of Equalization says it could raise $1.4 billion for the state, but I'm skeptical that Californians are going to let the budget deficit determine how they vote on this one.

As Merced County Sheriff Mark Pazin says, "You got people out there who are passionate about it and I'm just as passionate that no good is going to come from it."

Both sides of the debate turn to similar facts to make their points:

Marijuana has never been more available, either through legal markets tied to medicinal use or illegal ones.

Law enforcement agencies are intercepting a fraction of illegal marijuana cultivated and transported by drug cartels.

A report from the Central Valley High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, a federally funded law enforcement group, says 7.5 million marijuana plants were pulled in the state last year, up from 2.6 million in 2006. The authors of the report assume that police seized no more than 20 percent of what was grown.

California's evolving response to Proposition 215, the 1996 ballot measure that legalized marijuana for medicinal purposes, confuses police, patients and local governments.

Here in Modesto, leaders erected barriers to allowing medical marijuana patients to obtain cannabis without heading to the Bay Area since voters passed Prop. 215. Cities banned dispensaries and police are quick to draw attention to healthy people toting medical marijuana cards.

Cities could take similar steps to restrict recreational use under the Tax Cannabis initiative, which gives local governments leeway to regulate the drug.

That doesn't mean the valley has been able to wall itself off from the trends making marijuana so easy to acquire.

The Tuolumne County bust was exhibit A. Last week, Pazin's deputies pulled 9,000 plants outside of Stevinson. Meanwhile, Highway 99 and Interstate 5 are arteries to deliver cannabis up and down the state.

Sheriffs around the region oppose legalization, contending the initiative would cement California as the nation's source for marijuana. Already, federal estimates suggest that 70 percent of marijuana comes from California.

Sheriffs also fear that they'll see more people driving under the influence of marijuana, and unintended public health consequences if more people smoke cannabis.

"It's a risk to public safety," Stanislaus County Sheriff Adam Christianson said. "In reality, do we really know what's going to happen? We don't."

The current system isn't keeping illegal growers from ruining neighborhoods by filling houses with marijuana plants or tearing up public lands to cultivate marijuana in isolated places. The question is whether legal markets would lead to more reasonable growing and use of cannabis.

"If California legalizes, it won't immediately eliminate the problem of the rest of the country," said Dale Gieringer, state coordinator for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. "There will remain a substantial market for illegal marijuana in most of the rest of the U.S., so until the rest of the U.S. follows suit you're going to see a lot of illegal growing going on."

That's a frank assessment from one of the initiative's supporters. Voters get to make the call on whether legalization is the best way to manage the drug over time, or if the status quo should continue.

Bee Assistant City Editor Adam Ashton can be reached at or 578-2366.

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