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Monday, February 2

How the Great Recession masked the marijuana farming disaster

By 2014, as the large scale of the ecological damage done by commercial pot farming was becoming evident, the rationalizations for legalizing commercial cultivation of 'recreational' marijuana had approached the point of absurdity.  See the howler (second report, below) penned by California Democratic politician Shawn Bagley as his solution to pot farming's contribution to California's water scarcity crisis and ecological degradation. His idea is so funny because it entirely overlooks that properly regulating and enforcing regulations on pot farming would eat up whatever revenue the state hoped to gain from legalization.
But track back to 2009, to another California Democrat's impassioned plea for said legalization, and it's easy to see why the American national press was in a dilemma about how much to report on environmental issues connected with pot farming.

The United States had entered a steep recession that had thrown many millions of Americans out of work. It seemed inhumane to target otherwise law-abiding citizens who were trying to keep body and soul together by growing illegal pot. It was so much easier to blame foreign interlopers for all the environmental damage done by the farming. (See the AP report in the previous Pundita post.)

And of course the water crisis in California and other Western states was years ahead on the timeline.

But note a glaring omission in the following TIME report. Nowhere is the topic of the commercial cultivation of marijuana mentioned. It's all about the great financial help that "decriminalization, regulation and taxation of marijuana" retail sales could bring to California residents suffering from the recession.

From the beginning, going all the way back to the 1990s, the omission was evident in pro-legalization arguments -- but only with hindsight. There simply was no planning, not ever, on how the United States would handle legal commercial marijuana farming.  The oversight turned out to be disastrous.
Can Marijuana Help Rescue California's Economy?
By Alison Stateman in Los Angeles
TIME magazine
March 13, 2009
[See website for links in the report]

Could marijuana be the answer to the economic misery facing California?

Democratic state assemblyman Tom Ammiano thinks so. Ammiano introduced legislation last month that would legalize [recreational] pot and allow the state to regulate and tax its sale — a move that could mean billions of dollars for the cash-strapped state.

Pot is, after all, California's biggest cash crop, responsible for $14 billion a year in sales, dwarfing the state's second largest agricultural commodity — milk and cream — which brings in $7.3 billion a year, according to the most recent USDA statistics.

The state's tax collectors estimate the bill would bring in about $1.3 billion a year in much needed revenue, offsetting some of the billions of dollars in service cuts and spending reductions outlined in the recently approved state budget.

"The state of California is in a very, very precipitous economic plight. It's in the toilet," says Ammiano.

"It looks very, very bleak, with layoffs and foreclosures, and schools closing or trying to operate four days a week. We have one of the highest rates of unemployment we've ever had. With any revenue ideas, people say you have to think outside the box, you have to be creative, and I feel that the issue of the decriminalization, regulation and taxation of marijuana fits that bill. It's not new, the idea has been around, and the political will may in fact be there to make something happen."
Ammiano may be right. A few days after he introduced the bill, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced that states should be able to make their own rules for medical marijuana and that federal raids on pot dispensaries in California would cease. The move signaled a softening of the hard-line approach to medicinal pot use previous Administrations have taken.

The nomination of Gil Kerlikowske as the head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy may also signal a softer federal line on marijuana. If he is confirmed as the so-called drug czar, Kerlikowske will take with him experience as police chief of Seattle, where he made it clear that going after people for possessing marijuana was not a priority for his force. (See a story about the grass-roots marijuana war in California.)

In 1996 California became one of the first states in the nation to legalize medical marijuana. Currently, $200 million in medical-marijuana sales are subject to sales tax. If passed, the Marijuana Control, Regulation and Education Act (AB 390) would give California control of pot in a manner similar to that of alcohol while prohibiting its purchase by citizens under age 21.

(The bill has been referred to the California state assembly's public safety and health committees; Ammiano says it could take up to a year before it comes to a vote for passage.)

State revenues would be derived from a $50-per-oz. levy on retail sales of marijuana and sales taxes.
By adopting the law, California could become a model for other states.

As Ammiano put it,  "How California goes, the country goes."

Despite the need for the projected revenue, opponents say legalizing pot would only add to social woes.

"The last thing we need is yet another mind-altering substance to be legalized," says John Lovell, lobbyist for the California Peace Officers' Association. "We have enough problems with alcohol and abuse of pharmaceutical products. Do we really need to add yet another mind-altering substance to the array?" Lovell says the easy availability of the drug would lead to a surge in its use, much as happened when alcohol was allowed to be sold in venues other than liquor stores in some states.

(Read why Dr. Sanjay Gupta is against decriminalizing pot.)

Joel W. Hay, professor of pharmaceutical economics at USC, also foresees harm if the bill passes. "Marijuana is a drug that clouds people's judgment. It affects their ability to concentrate and react, and it certainly has impacts on third parties," says Hay, who has written on the societal costs of drug abuse.

"It's one more drug that will add to the toll on society. All we have to do is look at the two legalized drugs, tobacco and alcohol, and look at the carnage that they've caused. [Marijuana] is a dangerous drug, and it causes bad outcomes for both the people who use it and for the people who are in their way at work or other activities."

He adds, "There are probably some responsible people who can handle marijuana, but there are lots of people who can't, and it has an enormous negative impact on them, their family and loved ones."

(See pictures of Mexico's drug wars.)

In response, retired Orange County Superior Court Judge James Gray, a longtime proponent of legalization, estimates that legalizing pot and thus ceasing to arrest, prosecute and imprison nonviolent offenders could save the state $1 billion a year.

"We couldn't make this drug any more available if we tried," he says. "Not only do we have those problems, along with glamorizing it by making it illegal, but we also have the crime and corruption that go along with it."

He adds, "Unfortunately, every society in the history of mankind has had some  form of mind-altering, sometimes addictive substances to use, to misuse, abuse or get addicted to. Get used to it. They're here to stay. So let's try to reduce those harms, and right now we couldn't do it worse if we tried."

(Read "An American Pastime: Smoking Pot." See a story discussing whether pot is good for you.)

Legal Pot could help drought, environment, state coffers
By Shawn Bagley
The Merced Sun-Star
July 20, 2014
We are going through an unprecedented drought, but I don’t have to tell you that. You see it every time you see a brown patch that used to be green grass or dirt that should be your family’s crop. It’s disgusting, and politicians in Sacramento aren’t doing anything about it except bickering.

Whenever they get back from their vacation, our legislators will finally decide to send a water bond to the November ballot. It’ll likely include appropriations for conveyance, storage and restoration – renovations to our water infrastructure that should have been put into place years ago. But there is one industry that we can change today to ensure more water comes through for our families and farmers – marijuana.

Politicians are too afraid to even mention the issue. They don’t trust the people they represent to be smart enough to have a rational discussion about marijuana. They’re afraid of being labeled as “pro-legalization” or “pro-regulation.” Well, I’m pro-realization.

I realize that illegal marijuana growers are polluting and diverting water from vital creeks, streams and groundwater sources. I realize that our law enforcement agencies are stretched too thin and don’t have the resources to combat heavily armed cartels. And I realize it’s time to figure out a reasonable solution to this problem.

Just in the last month, more than 1,000 illegal marijuana plants were discovered in California. Cultivating those plants meant bulldozing mountain sides to create flat land and dumping tons of fertilizer near creeks and streams. Water was diverted into industrial-sized tanks and moved from one watershed to another; dirt from razed mountainsides was pushed into creek channels, and dammed the creeks; fertilizer seeped into those creeks, depleting water sources.

Sheriffs have seen their budgets diminished year after year, so going directly after these cartels at a fast enough pace to eliminate them isn’t really an option. They simply cannot keep up with the “prohibition style” culture that has risen up out of this black market. While law-abiding farmers are cut off from their water supplies, these marijuana farmers continue to steal water to stay in business.

It’s not fair to our Valley farmers that these illegal growers use unlimited water to grow their crop. It’s not fair that Valley farmers have to pay for permits to grow when illegal marijuana growers just grow wherever they want without any regard for how it affects you and me.

So let’s level the playing field by making marijuana growers follow the permitting rules that all farmers must follow. Let’s take marijuana from the black market to the free market. Moving marijuana into the free market will enable other free-market actors to help the state ensure they’re playing by the rules we all abide by. As the only “pro-realization” candidate running for state Senate, I promise to tackle this issue so the outcome will help our state, not hurt it. I’m not afraid of these tough issues, and I’m not afraid to say the status quo isn’t working.

Some say that legalizing marijuana is inevitable in California. I have studied how Colorado and Washington have passed and enforced their new laws regarding marijuana. We can learn from their mistakes and make sure marijuana doesn’t end up in the hands of children, and marijuana farmers will have to play by the same rules.

In 1996 voters passed Proposition 215, allowing for personal medical marijuana use. This proposition was poorly written and resulted in legal challenges and gave more questions than answers. This is why the Legislature must step up and author a comprehensive marijuana bill. One that ensures our community’s safety, environmental protections and an economic benefit to our state.

Bagley of Salinas is a Democratic candidate for the 12th Senate District against Republican Anthony Cannella of Ceres. [...]
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