When it comes to legalizing pot, it's easy to imagine the kind of radical scenarios Californians are conjuring in their heads. Perhaps they own a business, and worry about high-as-a-kite employees stumbling into work—submitting psychedelic Power Point presentations to drowsy bosses. Maybe they're parents, wondering how their kids will react when they come home from school to find mom and dad sprawled out on the couch, surrounded by cookie crumbs. Or perhaps they're entrepreneurs, their eyes bulging over the idea of commercializing pot for good: imagining billboards, popup bars, and everything in between.
The predictable scenes from a legalized California, should voters pass Proposition 19 on Nov. 2, are seemingly endless, and they've managed to strike fear (and excitement) in the hearts of many. But the reality is that California became a kind of pot utopia years ago—complete with clubs that sell it, cities who tax it, and tourists who hit the Pacific Coast Highway in search of the Golden State's best bud. Prop 19 would make California a trailblazer, legally. But would it really change that much about the culture?
In government terms, Prop 19 would shield Californians who have up to an ounce in their posession from prosecution—assuming they're 21. It would allow adults who want to grow the stuff to do so, in the privacy of their homes, on up to 25 square feet of land. Local governments could then decide to sanction commercial production (if they so choose), and tax its sale—using the funds for things like libraries, parks, or schools. But if approved, the measure also would put California head to head with the federal government, where marijuana remains illegal (and Attorney General Eric Holder has vowed to "vigorously" enforce its ban). Opponents wonder how it could possibly work to have each of California's 478 cities implement separate taxation policies, and question whether legalization would cause usage rates to hit the roof. Supporters push back with stats about American dependence on Mexican drug cartels, and the $300 million California might save if it cut back on prosecuting low-level marijuana offenders each year.
These are important legal (and financial) questions. But for anyone who's been to California recently, it's easy to forget that recreational marijuana isn't permitted there already. In 1996, California became the first of 14 states to sanction medical pot use; getting the state-issued ID card that allows access to medical marijuana may cost you, but it requires little more than convincing a doctor you have cramps. California is now home to thousands of pot dispensaries operating both legally and illegally, as well as a number of cities where pot sales are being taxed—and even a marijuana university. It's been estimated that 400,000 Californians smoke pot legally each year—and another 2 million do so illegally. In a new national NEWSWEEK poll, almost half of respondents said they'd support a measure similar to Prop 19 in their own state, and 57 percent said they oppose the federal government's right to prosecute legal marijuana users in California.
Critics may be right when they say statewide implementation of a legalization measure could be murky. As Sen. Dianne Feinstein has put it, it would make for a "jumbled, legal nightmare." But the truth is that marijuana cultivation and distribution are already "tightly woven into [California's] economy," as the Los Angeles Times has written—part of a $14 billion industry that's already grown in homes, and even national parks. "People are no longer outraged by the idea of legalization," as former San Francisco mayor Willie Brown recently put it. "And, truth be told, there is just too much money to be made [from it]."
It's impossible to predict how much Prop 19 could really change things, but perhaps the best test case would be the city of Oakland. There, commercial pot production has been taxed since 2005, sold among four licensed dispensaries operating downtown. But crime hasn't gone up in Oakland as a result; there aren't glassy-eyed potheads asleep on benches around every bend. In fact, regulation has done something of the opposite: licensed "coffee shops" have lured new business to the area, and the $2 million in taxes that's expected to come in this year, according to the city's tax administrator, will go toward things like filling potholes, renovating parks, and funding recreation centers. "The reality," says Richard Lee, a local entrepreneur (and Prop 19's primary sponsor), "is [that] we're creating jobs, improving the city, filling empty store spaces, and when people come down here to Oakland, they can see that."
Come Tuesday, it may be precisely that kind of economic lure that has the biggest impact on California voters. But when it comes to the cultural impact, it seems pot may have already gone mainstream. "This is a new world," Robert MacCoun, a professor of law and public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, tells NEWSWEEK. "If you'd have asked me four years ago whether we'd be having this debate today, I can't say I would have predicted it." It may indeed be a new world, but it could also look an awful lot like the current one.