California voters may get a chance this year to consider legalizing and regulating recreational marijuana use.
Local law enforcement officials say legalization would create a host of new problems.
Lemoore police Chief Darrell Smith pointed to recent reports of increased fatal traffic accidents in Colorado, where marijuana was legalized in 2012.
“I think the effort to legalize marijuana runs contrary to the interest of public health and safety,” Smith said.
Among the most proposed ballot initiatives with the best chances of passing is the Adult Use of Marijuana Act. According to state campaign finance records, major donors for the initiative include former Facebook president Sean Parker, who has donated $1 million since January. Other major donors have contributed $1.25 million combined.
The law would allow adults ages 21 and older to use, possess, purchase and grow nonmedical marijuana.
The act claims it would “incapacitate the black market” and move marijuana sales into a legal structure “with strict safeguards against children accessing it.” As written, it would prohibit marijuana businesses from locating within 600 feet of schools and other areas where children congregate.
Voters struck down a similar initiative, Proposition 19, in 2010.
Hanford police Chief Parker Sever said he opposes the legalization of recreational marijuana, in part, because it would create a new black market aimed solely at people younger than 21.
“People will be growing it and supplementing their income by selling it to kids,” Sever said.
Sever said legalizing marijuana would likely make it easier for young people to get the drug. Existing laws for tobacco products make it illegal for a minor to possess or use them. However, the California Penal Code prescribes a fine of $75 or 30 hours of community service for that crime.
State law says anyone younger than 21 found in possession of alcohol is guilty of a misdemeanor and can face a fine of $250 or up to 32 hours of community service.
“You can see how successful we’ve been with tobacco and alcohol,” Sever said. “Do we really need another alcohol?”
Medical marijuana is has been legal in California since 1996 when voters approved Proposition 215. Patients must have a doctor’s recommendation.
Over the past few years, Kings County jurisdictions have banned the cultivation, sale or dispensing of medical marijuana.
Sever said he believes marijuana has some legitimate medical uses, but there have been few scientific studies to evaluate them.
“Let’s do some studies,” Sever said. “Find out what it treats. What is a prescription dose?”
Smith said marijuana is widely considered to be a “gateway” drug, leading users to try other addictive drugs.
“We also have to remember that the marijuana of today is much more potent than the marijuana of 20 years ago,” Smith said.
The Adult Use of Marijuana Act also proposes to allow taxes of up to 15 percent to be collected for marijuana products. Other regulations would impose strict packaging for marijuana products and establish a Bureau of Marijuana Control.
Smith, who once headed the Kings County Narcotics Task Force, said some citizens will continue to grow and sell marijuana illegally. He said black market drug dealers are not going to follow the rules.
“Cartels bring a lot of drugs into the country,” Smith said. “They’re not going to work within a regulatory system.”
Even if California votes to legalize recreational marijuana use later this year, the drug would still remain federally illegal.
“I’ve had kids say to me, ‘It’s no big deal. Everybody does it,’” Sever said. “Just because everybody does it, doesn’t make it right.”