AP) – Marijuana advocates are gathering signatures to get as many as three pot-legalization measures on the ballot in 2010 in California, setting up what could be a groundbreaking clash with the federal government over U.S. drug policy.
At least one poll shows voters would support lifting the pot prohibition, which would make the state of 40 million the first in the nation to legalize marijuana.
Such action would also send the state into a headlong conflict with the U.S. government while raising questions about how federal law enforcement could enforce its drug laws in the face of a massive government-sanctioned pot industry.
The state already has a thriving marijuana trade, thanks to a first-of-its-kind 1996 ballot measure that allowed people to smoke pot for medical purposes. But full legalization could turn medical marijuana dispensaries into all-purpose pot stores, and the open sale of joints could become commonplace on mom-and-pop liquor store counters in liberal locales like Oakland and Santa Cruz.
Under federal law, marijuana is illegal, period. After overseeing a series of raids that destroyed more than 300,000 marijuana plants in California’s Sierra Nevada foothills this summer, federal drug czar Gil Kerlikowske proclaimed, “Legalization is not in the president’s vocabulary, and it’s not in mine.”
The U.S. Supreme Court also has ruled that federal law enforcement agents have the right to crack down even on marijuana users and distributors who are in compliance with California’s medical marijuana law.
But some legal scholars and policy analysts say the government will not be able to require California to help in enforcing the federal marijuana ban if the state legalizes the drug.
State marijuana bans have allowed the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to focus on big cases, said Rosalie Pacula, director of drug policy research at the Rand Corp.
The most conservative of the three ballot measures would only legalize possession of up to one ounce of pot for personal use by adults 21 and older – an amount that already under state law can only result at most in a $100 fine.
The proposal would also allow anyone to grow a plot of marijuana up to 5 feet-by-5 feet on their private property. The size, Pacula said, seems specifically designed to keep the total number of plants grown below 100, the threshold for DEA attention.
The greatest potential for conflict with the U.S. government would likely come from the provision that would give local governments the power to decide city-by-city whether to allow pot sales.
Hundreds of medical marijuana dispensaries across the state already operate openly with only modest federal interference. If recreational marijuana became legal, these businesses could operate without requiring their customers to qualify as patients.