Proposition 64 Would Legalize Cannabis—But at What Cost?

October, 2016

Californians will be asked this November whether or not to legalize the use of cannabis. Multiple initiatives for legalization had been proposed for the 2016 ballot, but only Proposition 64 qualified. Specifically, Proposition 64—the California Marijuana Legalization Initiative—would:

Legalize personal possession and use of cannabis for adults over 21 years old. 

Allow the personal cultivation of up to six cannabis plants per residence.

Allow for the development of “appellation” zones—legally defined and protected geographical indication used to identify where cannabis is grown.

Impose state excise tax of 15% on retail sales of marijuana, and state cultivation taxes on marijuana of $9.25 per ounce of flowers and $2.75 per ounce of leaves.

Legalize industrial hemp production. 

Much has been written about the social costs of prohibition, and while the legalization of cannabis may be a step forward for civil rights, the environmental protections—or lack thereof—are concerning. Proposition 64 includes no size restrictions, allows for the use of pesticides, does not mandate carbon offsets mandated for indoor grow operations, and designates oversight into a weak and industry-captured agency: the Department of Food and Agriculture.

Some argue that Proposition 64 cuts to the heart of one of the prime sources of environmental degradation: prohibition. The legal status of cannabis pushed cultivation to those areas most vulnerable—deep into our forests and headwaters—where cultivation was easiest to hide. Proper construction, grading, and environmental regulations were often ignored (as, if a cultivator was caught, they would have bigger issues than a civil penalty). With removal of criminal penalities, there is hope that growers will move to areas more suitable for agriculture. 

Proposition 64 directs that the Department of Food and Agriculture, in conjunction with the Department of Fish and Wildlife, develop regulations sufficient to protect instream flows and other environmental values. Proposition 64 also explicitly requires adherence to other laws, like the Regional Water Board’s cannabis waiver, designed to protect the environment. 

Further, Proposition 64 allows for “local control,” meaning that jurisdictions can impose their own regulations, whether for safety or environmental protection. Counties that want to impose additional regulations can draft new rules, like those Humboldt County passed that direct where medical cannabis can be grown and in what amount. However, some counties may not develop any additional protections and use the weight of their authority to hinder the state from imposing whatever regulations might exist. (This scenario has played out too many times with more traditional forms of agriculture.)

Lastly, a portion of the money generated by taxes, some 20 percent, would be directed towards environmental restoration and remediation efforts. This is less, however, than the amount proposed by AB2243 (initiated by our Representative Jim Wood), which would have devoted nearly all funds to enforcement and remediation. Unfortunately, AB2243 died in the State Senate.

What will Proposition 64 do to our community? It’s no secret that our region has been home to a lucrative cannabis cultivation industry for decades. Many locals have expressed concern about the likely fall in price that would result from the development of a legal recreational market, which would hurt the small farmers of the North Coast most. Proposition 64 contains some protections—limiting licenses to farms under one acre until 2023—but it is unclear whether these will be enough. Some have expressed concern that Proposition 64 will result in a movement of the cannabis industry to agricultural lands in the Central Valley, particularly after the 2023 acreage limit expires. Other residents, however, would be pleased to see the cannabis industry leave the region.