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So What Will Actually Happen If California Legalizes Pot?

Eric Holder says he will keep enforcing the Controlled Substances Act. So what will actually change if California legalizes pot?

America's chief enforcer of the law, Attorney General Eric Holder, recently announced that if California voters legalize marijuana in November, he will nevertheless "vigorously enforce" the Controlled Substances Act against people or businesses that possess or sell weed for recreational use.

At least some polls show a significant lead for Proposition 19, the legalization measure. So what happens if the state says yes and the feds say no?

The always-sharp UCLA public policy professor Mark Kleiman makes a prediction.

[Holder's announcement] means that the commercialization provisions of Prop. 19 – taxation and regulation via local option – are a dead letter. Presumably the Justice Department would ask for an injunction barring any California official from issuing a license – in effect, a license to commit a federal felony – under Prop. 19, and I expect that the courts would issue such an injunction. Even if no injunction issued, any grower or retailer who filed California tax or regulatory paperwork would be confessing to a federal felony. So there wouldn’t be open commercial growing or (non-medical) sale.

That doesn’t effect [sic] the home-growing provision of Prop. 19: anyone who owns or leases property could grow one 5?x5? plot per parcel. Since that activity will be legal under state law, state and local cops won’t be able to investigate, and there’s no way the feds have the resources to deal with 25-square-foot grows.

The big question left unresolved by Holder’s announcement is the behavior of state and local cops with respect to commercial growing and (non-medical) retailing. If no county or municipality can issue a license, that activity will remain illegal in California. If California law enforcement continues to enforce those laws vigorously, nothing much will change. If not, there’s no way to put enough Federal resources in the field to make up for the absence of state and local enforcement, and California will become the cannabis supplier to the rest of the country, and probably Canada.


So basically, we may see more small-scale growers with 25-square-foot plots, but we're unlikely to see Marlboro greens while Holder's in office.

Photo (cc) from Flickr user JosephLeonardo

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