Thirty-seven years ago, Californians voted on our first Proposition 19 to legalize marijuana. The 1973 version was two paragraphs long and got 33 percent of the vote. The 2010 version was approximately 15 times as long and got 46 percent of the vote. Is this a trend?
Let's hope not. The complexification of legalization illustrates how many interests have piled onto what used to be a simple goal. Legalization will never be simple again because it's now about a burgeoning industry, not a plant -- and yet that's the great opportunity that Prop. 19's failure brings to Humboldt County.
Prop. 19 was written by Oaksterdam potrepreneurs who were among the first to establish commercial relations with their local governments. Humboldt now has a chance to catch up and grow California's billion-dollar medical marijuana industry based upon the actual motherlode of legalization, 1996's Proposition 215.
Prop. 215 was crafted by activists and idealists, not businessmen. It created a legal exemption from pot laws for anyone with a doctor's recommendation for a medical condition. Some consider this a fraudulent get-out-of-jail-free card; more of us are coming to understand that Prop. 215 was also, after 70 years of brazenly discriminatory drug-law enforcement, an equal-opportunity medical thumb that rebalanced the scales of justice.
Prop. 19, on the other hand, contained few ideals beyond legalizing opportunities in a huge industry. Even its supporters (myself included) had a hard time saying what we were supporting. Yet it's easy to say why we supported whatever it was: 800,000 people are imprisoned in this country every year, and tens of thousands of foreigners are killed every year, because of drug laws that glamorize and enrich lawbreakers. Great institutions are built upon this injustice, such as our prison system, which is now larger than our university system. Small ones also depend on it, such as the rural schools, fire departments and health facilities of Southern Humboldt County.
This is a complicated picture, and these complexities are now upon us. If Prop. 19 had passed, we would be in an immediate race with well-connected city industrialists to produce and promote abundant legal marijuana. And we would be racing against people who wrote their own rules.
Instead, thanks to Prop. 19's defeat, we have at least two years to do what its backers did first in the Bay Area -- create regulatory understandings and relationships for evolving and promoting a blossoming industry. That's good news. The bad news is that doing the same here will require cooperation and compromise across Humboldt County. I'm confident we can rise to this challenge, which we must understand clearly.
Whether people like it or not, marijuana is the biggest industry in the county. Like any big industry, it has effects both good and bad. Unlike other big industries, its effects aren't regulated. In fact, they're barely discussed. It's a great irony of our present political situation that attempts to regulate Humboldt's potlands in our General Plan Update and timber production zone guidelines -- neither of which even mention the "M" word -- have failed spectacularly. One side wants property rights respected but doesn't particularly care about marijuana. The other side wants strong regulations such as Option A but doesn't discuss marijuana's role in making such regulations necessary, pre-empting discussion of mitigation.
Maybe these goals can be discussed openly and honestly now. Maybe building a house on a Timber Production Zone parcel isn't half the problem that Zonker Harris is: The Doonesbury cartoon character recently told his parents in hundreds of newspapers that he's moving to Humboldt to grow pot, along with thousands of other recession-driven green-rushers already here and on their way, as publicized in media ranging from the Los Angeles Times to Business Week. There had been no wave of McMansion subdividers when the General Plan controversies erupted, but there is a tidal wave of marijuana subdividers flooding our rural areas right now, while current residents use more water, land and resources every year to grow ever more weed.
What's our carrying capacity? Is there a breaking point? Is functional planning possible here, or must we, like the people of Mendocino and Arcata before us, respond to the dark side of economic development with a reactive backlash rather than a pro-active plan?
These aren't theoretical questions. Two weeks ago, after several marijuana ordinance proposals were submitted to the Board of Supervisors, Supervisor Mark Lovelace was assigned to design a comprehensive plan for public input and a process for completing the county's medical marijuana regulations. He'll announce the process in January. This delay would have been scary if Prop. 19 had succeeded, because we'd be holding those discussions while sprinting in a fixed race. Since it failed, we have the time we need to conduct countywide discussions of what pot means to our county, and perhaps agree on what we want it to mean. We're lucky we have time to do this right.
Our discussions will be more interesting than typical policy platitudinizing, because -- sorry to state this baldly -- no one in government or planning even pretends to know the first thing about the economic base of our county. So who will they learn from? Who will be listened to? Who has a right to participate in these discussions without fear? Who should be fearful? And what are we going to do about Zonker Harris?
Whatever we decide, it's interesting times ahead for Humboldt County. Pot made its prison break in 1996, and it won't go back to jail. Whether our society will ever achieve complete legalization as it used to be understood is anyone's guess, but if that should happen, it'll be years from now. By then Humboldt can make the most of its historic opportunities of land and brand, building a future worthy of its world-famous yet extremely private enterprise. I hope we make the most of our opportunities now -- so we'll be ready for the next Prop. 19.
Charley Custer is Secretary of the Humboldt Medical Marijuana Advisory Panel (HuMMAP.org) and a founder of Tea House Collective (teahousecollective.org), which offers organically and sustainably grown medical marijuana from Humboldt's family farms.