It is fair to say that Proposition 19, the Legalize, Tax & Regulate Cannabis initiative on the November 2 ballot in California is yet another headline-grabbing controversial measure facing Golden State voters, but not many expected it to create such a division in the marijuana community.
Almost 15 years ago, California voters approved Proposition 215, the landmark bill that legalized marijuana for medical use. Since the passage of Prop. 215 and subsequently SB420 which added further protections for marijuana patients, 13 other states have followed suit and a dispensary model was created in California that is being emulated around the country.
In the last 15 years, the laws have loosened and the cannabis cultivation, education and wholesale market has boomed, even amidst the most devastating world recession since the Great Depression. In April of 2010, the 1st International Cannabis and Hemp Expo (INTCHE) in San Francisco featured the largest marijuana consumption area of any legal cannabis event and was so popular that an encore of the event was held again at San Francisco’s Cow Palace last weekend.
But unlike the April expo, this event was not a celebration of the right to openly consume marijuana in public. With only 5 weeks to go until the November 2 election, tensions were high over whether to vote to pass Prop 19.
What was meant to be a debate and forum on Prop 19 devolved into chaos. The bill’s creator and sponsor, Richard Lee, the founder of Oaksterdam University, was so loudly heckled and booed that when it was his turn to speak he got red in the face and yelled into the microphone, “We’re all for fucking legalization! This is the best we can do right now!” and then a quieter aside to panelist Chris Conrad, Publisher of West Coast Leaf, “I’m done,” was picked up by the microphones. Conrad spoke to represent the “Yes on 19,” opinion for much of the remainder of the debate.
Earlier in the day, the No on 19 campaign was vigorously passing out flyers at their booth and around the expo. Many were a breakdown of the perceived loss of rights for patients under the bill, what they see as a license for cities to run wild with taxation, and that Lanette Davies, the Director of the Center for Patients Rights, was unfairly removed from the Prop 19 debate panel because “Richard didn’t want to debate her”
As the panelists were taking the stage a group of No on 19 activists showed up with picket signs chanting “No on 19!” as the panelist took their seats. Many of the protesters were from the web-based group “Stoners Against Legalization,” most notably cannabis writer Dragonfly de la Luz.
At the start of the debate, there were 5 panelists: Richard Lee and Chris Conrad for Yes on 19 and George Mull,a Northern California attorney who works with various Sacramento-area dispensaries, Lanette Davies, and Bishop Ron Allen for No on 19. Moments before the start of the debate Davies grabbed a microphone and announced that she had been kicked off the panel again. No on 19 supporters, angry at Lanette’s removal, drowned out the moderator as she tried to announce the panel and rules of the debate. Nate Bradley, a representative of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) rushed up to the stage, “Can you try to act like adults?” he demanded.
The No on 19 side argued that the patient rights established under Prop. 215 and SB420 would be lost if Prop 19 passes and that some cities are already planning to levee unaffordable taxes on personal cultivation. They cited plans by the City of Rancho Cordova (Sacramento County) that they say could create taxes of up to $90,000 a year for patients growing their own.
“If you want to vote for the legalization of marijuana, this is not the bill to do it with,” said Bishop Ron Allen of the International Faith Based Coalition. Allen is against all drug use and referenced the taxation of alcohol and tobacco and their health costs to society. “Tobacco taxes bring in $25 billion a year, but the health costs to society are $200 billion,” he added that smoking 3-5 joints a day is equivalent to smoking a pack of cigarettes and that no amount of taxes collected on it would equal the health costs to society created by it.
Yes on 19, met by much louder opposition than the No on 19 side, argued that patient’s rights are are untouched and therefore protected under Prop. 19 and that the cities and counties that levee heavy taxes or choose not to allow sales will lose out to the ones who do. Chris Conrad pulled up the proposition on a projector and attempted to show the audience the protections in the bill but was also drowned out by hecklers. Visibly irritated, he also yelled into the microphone, “Prop 19 is perfect! It is on the ballot! I can vote yes on 19!”, he added that he was one of the parties responsible for Prop 215 being on the ballot in 1996 and had been instrumental in getting SB420 passed. “If you are against 19, are you saying you would rather face prison? We had a Prop 19 [a similar legalization bill, also assigned the name “Prop 19”]that was supposed to legalize marijuana in 1972, it took us 38 years to get it back on the ballot. This will change the world, not just California.” Richard stepped in to comment that this bill is instrumental in fighting the drug war just south of Mexico’s drug war, and is being supported by current marijuana prisoners like Marc Emery and Eddy Lepp.
When it came time to take questions from the audience, it was much of the same sort of heated non-constructive questioning and commentary. Steve D’Angelo, owner and founder of Harborside Healther Center in Oakland took to the microphone. “I have been a cannabis activist for 37 years and it is sad to see everyone so divided… If Jack Herer was here, although this bill is not perfect, I believe he would walk into the voting booth and vote YES. It is not perfect, but we cant go into the voting booth and choose, NO. This is what we have and this is what we should work from.”
Dennis Peron, creator of Proposition 215 also took the microphone, ‘You could have done something great Richard, but you didn’t consult us, you ignored all of us,” he said.
“No, I didn’t, I came to you Dennis and we spoke about it,” Lee claimed. Peron taught at Oaksterdam University until he and Lee became divided over Proposition 19.
One audience commentator visiting from Florida pointed out that Prop 19 is not just important for Californians, “California has the opportunity to stand up and legalize marijuana. To see you bickering over wording and technicalities is disappointing.“
The debate had to be cut short because it ran over the time allotted for the expo.
Recent poll numbers show the measure winning by 4 points, although it is my belief that these numbers cannot be anywhere near to accurate as many field polls are conducted by phone and marijuana is still a federally illegal Schedule 1 drug.
Angela Bacca is Media Coordinator for Green Aid: The Marijuana Legal Defense and Education Fund and works closely with activist Ed Rosenthal.