cannabis legalization

The Cannabis Conundrum: Is California a Pseudo-Green State?

[Note: This final post in the GeoCurrents series on cannabis legalization strays from the blog’s stated guidelines, which emphasize factual reporting and seek to minimize political interpretations and ideological stances. It also leaves its own arguments hanging, providing no solid answers to the two central questions: why does California’s government favor high-carbon corporate cannabis over low-carbon artisanal production, and why does it allow criminal organizations to undermine the legal regime that it has so arduously created? Such matters will be explored later in a separate forum devoted to opinion-based essays.]

According to conventional thinking, California is a deep-green state, its leadership unwaveringly committed to environmental protection. No state is going to greater lengths to reduce carbon emissions, regardless of the short-term sacrifices that they entail. Although many doubt that California will be able to fulfill its ambitious energy mandates, few question the sincerity of its agenda. Even those who are skeptical about climate change are convinced that California is doing everything it can to guard against it, unwisely in their opinion. By the same token, California is widely regarded as highly progressive, leftwing state, its leadership devoted to helping marginalized communities and willing to take on the corporate establishment to improve the lot of the common person. In the rightwing press, California is sometimes portrayed as leaning so far to the left as to verge on socialism if not communism.

But when one examines California’s cannabis industry, a different picture emerges. Here official policy is not merely indifferent to carbon emissions, but rather acts as if it wants to increase them. Indoor growing facilities with massive carbon footprints are favored, while full-sun cultivators who seek carbon neutrality are hounded out of business. By the same token, the monied corporate sector is rewarded, while smallholdings are seemingly slated for liquidation. In the process, entire communities are being systematically devastated, Humboldt’s County’s Garberville being the prime example. What little rural prosperity was found in the backwoods of the Emerald Triangle is withering away. Only the elite-focused winery districts and coastal tourist towns will emerge unscathed. When it comes to cannabis, California follows a policy agenda that in other domains would be regarded as rightwing if not reactionary.

The resulting ironies run an ocean deep. Poor and middle-class Californians are asked to make major sacrifices to reduce their carbon emissions, with rising fuel and electricity costs burdening millions and sending many into energy poverty. Yet in cannabis we find an economic sector that could realize a massive carbon reduction at virtually no cost to consumers. Low-carbon artisanal cultivators could easily supply the market with high-quality and reasonably priced goods, as indeed they did for years under the medical-marijuana program. For some unspecified reason, this is not the path that the state has taken under full legalization. But California’s preferred course is heading quickly into its own dead end. As its political logic plays out, even the favored corporate sector is floundering, unable to compete with tolerated illegal operations. These well-funded growers  flout all the state’s carefully crafted regulations, often trashing the environment, exploiting their workers, stockpiling guns and biocides, and delivering to the public untested and sometimes highly contaminated products.

Why should cannabis form an exception to the supposed goals of the Californian political model? Why would the state’s government turn a blind eye to such blatant assaults on everything that it supposedly holds dear? These are difficult questions with no easy answers. When I ask my friends and relatives in Silicon Valley, all of whom are loyal supporters of the Democratic establishment, I get feeble responses that focus on incompetence and unintended consequences. The root problem, I have been told, is a simple a lack coordination, with cannabis regulators not receiving adequate guidance from the state’s environmentally devoted leadership.

I remain skeptical, to say the least. The conviction that climate change is an immediate existential threat that demands unwavering action on all fronts is ubiquitous in the Democratic Party. As a result, the idea that those in charge of cannabis would have somehow forgotten about carbon emissions when crafting their regulations is ludicrous. If we are to resist special pleading, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that California’s political establishment does not prioritize climate change when it is inconvenient to do so, and thus does not really regard it as an existential threat. Its environmental policies, in other words, seem to be designed instrumentally to satisfy allies and make electoral gains, not out of conviction or principle. Put differently, California appears to be a pseudo-green state.

Why would California’s political establishment pursue a pseudo-green political agenda? Perhaps I am being unduly harsh, and it is all merely an unfortunate error, due mainly to the lack of coordination between state agencies. But if this is indeed the case, then California must rectify this mistake by prohibiting indoor cannabis cultivation. If it does not do so, one can only conclude that its environmental rhetoric is mostly posturing, and that its decarbonization campaign is deeply dishonest.

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Cannabis Legalization in the U.S. Elections of 2022

The 2022 midterm elections in the United States had mixed results for cannabis legalization. Voters in Maryland and Missouri approved legalization measures, easily in the first case and by a relatively narrow margin in the second (see the charts below). Missouri thus became the third solidly “red state” to allow cannabis consumption without a medical recommendation, following Alaska and Montana. Voters in Arkansas and South Dakota, however, rejected legalization, with a 56% “no” vote in the former state and a 55% “no” vote in the latter. The South Dakota vote took many by surprise, as just two years earlier a legalization referendum passed, which was later invalidated in court. South Dakota voters will again take on the issue in the fall of 2023, but indications for legalization are not positive. As reported by Benzinga.com, “a statewide poll conducted this summer revealed that South Dakotans’ general sentiment toward legalizing recreational marijuana has shifted over the past two years, signaling that a referendum on the issue this fall could fail.” At the federal level, meanwhile, congressional efforts to eliminate the de jure cannabis prohibition stalled out, yet again.

The failure of federal cannabis legalization, and in some states as well, seems to defy the general public will. Opinion polls conducted by a variety of organizations show overwhelming support. An October 2021 Gallup poll found that even 50% of Republicans favor full legalization, with Democrats and independents offering overwhelming approval (83% and 71%). Similar results have been obtained by other polling agencies. A 2022 CBS/YouGov poll found a 66% level of support for legalization at both the federal and state levels. According to this poll, Republicans overall narrowly oppose legalization (51% to 49%), but those below the age of 45 solidly support it (59%). A 2022 Pew survey found that only 10 percent of Americans think that cannabis should be illegal for all purposes. According to the same poll, Americans in every age bracket except that of the elderly (75+) favor full legalization.

Given these numbers, along with the fact that American voters are roughly evenly divided among Republicans, Democrats and independents, the persistence of federal anti-cannabis laws is difficult to explain. In this arena, seems that Congress is defying the public will. Quandaries also emerge at the state level. Even in deep blue Hawaii and Delaware, cannabis remains legal only for medical uses, and in several purplish states it remains fully illegal (Wisconsin, North Carolina, and Georgia). How can these results be squared with public opinion polls that shows overwhelming support for legalization?

A variety of factors are probably at play. Simple inertia probably plays a role, and as a result it seems likely that Hawaii and Delaware will opt for legalization before too long. More important, however, is the concerted opposition of anti-cannabis forces. A sizable minority of Americans is vehemently opposed, with many regarding marijuana as nothing less than the “devil’s weed.”* As is often the case, the desires a vehement minority can override the less passionate concerns of a substantial majority. It is significant that legalization has often occurred through popular referenda rather than through legislation, as legislators can be more easily swayed by interest groups than the voters at large.

But another factor may be involved as well. Legalization, it turns out, has often yielded discouraging or even disastrous results. With revenues much lower than expected, chaotic business environments, and a thriving black market, states like California demonstrate the potential hazards of a poorly formulated legal regime. As a result, some legislators, and many voters, may ultimately favor legalization, yet still reject whatever proposal is put before them, skeptical that it gets it right. These issues will be examined in much greater detail in later posts

*The term “devil’s weed” is used most often for Datura, or jimsonweed, which contains several powerful and poisonous psychoactive substances. For a religiously informed discussion of cannabis as the “devil’s weed,” see Marijuana – The Devil’s Weed?, by Dr. Joe Fawcett.

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