California Legalizes Recreational Marijuana: Context and Controversy

by: The Knowledge Group

January 09, 2018


It’s the largest legalized recreational marijuana market in the world. California, pursuant to a ballot measure endorsed by voters in November 2016, just opened legal commerce in cannabis. Adults (21+) may buy an ounce of any given cannabis product at a time. (Medical marijuana can be had in unlimited quantities, with a doctor’s note and medical ID. In 1996, California was the first state to legalize medical marijuana.)

California’s new industry is valued as a multi-billion dollar market, and will easily pull in a billion in annual tax revenue.

A half-dozen more states are slated to join the club this year.

Here’s the rub. Cannabis is illegal under federal law.

The Attorney General Green-Lights Federal Prosecutions

The federal government has, for 14 years, maintained a laissez-faire attitude to states with commercial marijuana markets, after the “Cole memo” directed federal prosecutors to take a hands-off approach. But A.G. Jeff Sessions has rescinded that policy. Reactions have been strong.

Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom of California called marijuana criminalization “costly and racially discriminatory” and unpopular, and vowed to work to protect states’ rights.

Colorado officials received no advance warning of the announcement, state Attorney General Cynthia H. Coffman said. In 2012, Colorado voters passed their own ballot initiative legalizing adult-use marijuana.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown called the new federal stance “disruptive to our state’s economy” as 19,000 cannabis industry jobs are at stake.

In Washington state, Gov. Jay Inslee responded in frustration to the federal rollback of the Cole memo, saying the move “disrespects” Washingtonians who voted more than five years ago to legalize marijuana for people over 21. Oregon’s Attorney General, Bob Ferguson, was “disappointed and troubled” by the announcement. The two state officials together wrote a public letter in August to Sessions, correcting a number of assertions in Sessions’ commentaries on Washington’s marijuana law.

California’s Next Move?

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra is now considering a lawsuit.

Meanwhile, Assemblymember Reggie Jones-Sawyer is reviving a “sanctuary state” proposal to shield California cannabis from interference, calling the federal move part of an outdated war on drugs.