Jeff Jardine

Jeff Jardine: Pot of gold or trouble? Pros and cons draw crowd

You can be all for legalizing marijuana for so-called recreational use. Or you can be adamantly against it.

What Tuesday night’s Bee-staged marijuana forum at the Gallo Center addressed most starkly is this: Marijuana has been a crop in California, legal or illegal, for a century and legal for medicinal use for the past 19 years. It is everywhere you go.

Your neighbor could be growing in the backyard next door, or in a shed or a basement, for all you know. Its odor wafts through stadiums from John Thurman Field here in Modesto to AT&T Park in San Francisco (though you can always blame it on Dodger fans).

About an hour before the discussion began, a Facebook friend posted, “Just watched two people smoke a marijuana cigarette then pull into (In-N-Out). They must get so much (munchies) business.”

Pot generates billions of dollars in sales in the state annually, the vast majority of which goes untaxed because it is still illegal for recreational use in California.

To pretend legalizing it would somehow generate a brand-new industry, create new jobs or invent new social ills is pure naiveté. The marijuana industry, as third-generation grower, advocate and panelist Hezekiah Allen pointed out, is long established throughout California. The jobs have existed for decades. The impacts have been felt in the mental health care and emergency medical fields for decades, as well.

Come November, one or more propositions could be on the statewide ballot asking voters to legalize marijuana beyond medicinal use, joining Colorado, Oregon, Washington and Alaska as pot-legal states. The vote would fall on the same ballot that ends a presidential campaign so strange and contentious that it might compel even nonsmokers to give weed a try.

If Sacramento media consultant and panelist Jason Kinney’s numbers are correct, more than 60 percent of the voters “support a rational, regulated industry.”

All of which is what made Tuesday’s discussion so interesting for more than 300 mostly pro-pot attendees and the experts on the panel. Two panelists – Allen and Kinney – want to legalize it. Stanislaus County Sheriff Adam Christianson opposes legalization. And the fourth panelist, Supervisor Vito Chiesa, said he is spending much of his time planning for the inevitability that, yes, it will become legal. The county and its nine cities, he said, need to be prepared should that happen.

So should Christianson, whose job is to enforce the laws – not make them.

“I’ve seen the powers of addiction,” he said. “It puts young people at risk.”

Over more than two hours, they covered a wide range of impacts from marijuana legalization, from the need for more psychiatric beds to potential tax money the county and cities could receive. They talked about impacts of legalization on jails and courts. They covered the vast amount of pot being grown locally, including small grows within city limits. They discussed the need to keep the pot grows small and local rather than allow corporate farms to run the mom-and-pop operations out.

And they talked about the need to establish statewide rules regarding the use of pesticides on the crop. In fact, Allen promised, California would lead the nation in that area.

They also wondered openly about the responsibilities that could fall on local agencies, including the Sheriff’s Department, county health, environmental health and other departments. And how much of the sales tax collected would the state let slip through its usually sticky fingers and trickle down to the local levels where the real impacts are felt?

Sacramento has a pathetic record when it comes to that, Chiesa pointed out.

Mostly, they talked: lawman, lawmaker, lobbyist and lifelong pot grower. They listened to and learned from one another. They traded ideas instead of barbs in the kind of discussion on marijuana that hasn’t happened until now and perhaps is somewhat late considering November is just eight months away.

Legalize it or not, love it or hate it, the one thing they all agreed upon is the need to be ready should voters approve it come November. Voters will be asked to decide whether this should be a taxing proposition or something left in the shadows for the black market.

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