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With Washington and Colorados recently passed marijuana legalization initiatives, CJCJ’s Research Fellow Mike Males noted California’s next reform needs to be towards nondiscriminatory legalization of medical and recreational marijuana with funding mechanisms to prevent drug abuse. California may follow this growing policy trend of legalization, as demonstrated by the growing support for marijuana legalization nationally and statewide, multiple legalization ballot measures (including two for the 2014 election), and long-term planning for the 2016 election. Design considerations for legalization must be informed to avoid federal enforcement, discriminatory effects, and other unintended consequences.

Legalizing marijuana without age discrimination is difficult given the DOJ’s newly released enforcement priorities. The Department of Justice (DOJ) released a memo to federal prosecutors noting eight guiding enforcement priorities,” with one aim of preventing the distribution of marijuana to minors.” Minors are not specified by age in the DOJ’s memo, but so far, legalization measures only allow recreational marijuana use for adults over 21 years of age, similar to the regulation of alcohol. The unintended consequence is continued and potentially increased penalization of youth under 18 and in the legally grey adulthood of 18 to 21 years of age.

The California Society of Addiction Medicine (CSAM) states,

It would be inconsistent to legalize marijuana for those over 21 and continue a punitive approach for those under 21 when the rationale for restricting access for those under 21 is a public health concern.

Rather than punishment, CSAM recommends universally available” treatment for youth abusing [legalized] marijuana” while noting the majority of all marijuana users do not abuse it. Regulatory fees and taxation are proposed as financial mechanisms to fund such treatment. The California Medical Association (CMA) also officially called for legalization, regulation, and taxation of marijuana after publishing a white paper, Cannabis and the Regulatory Void, suggesting marijuana rescheduling to encourage research.”

If California enacted marijuana legalization for adults, youth would not automatically be more criminalized and punitively punished as in Colorado and Washington. California’s SB 1449 changed marijuana possession from a misdemeanor to an infraction, with a maximum penalty of $100, and could still apply to youth if California legalized marijuana for adults. With SB 1449, California can approach legalization for adults without further penalizing youth. 

Unfortunately, the lack of data collection on infractions is problematic. Like arrest data, infraction data would likely show a discriminatory impact on certain demographics, such as economically disadvantaged individuals. Such data would also illustrate the effect of civil and criminal penalties resulting from missing court dates and other infraction requirements.

Under marijuana legalization, misdemeanor charges are still presented for adults and minors who possess marijuana on school grounds. It is important to note, zero-tolerance school policies need to be addressed separately from marijuana legalization. No form of marijuana legalization can address nonsensical school policies treating Tylenol, prescription drugs, marijuana, and heroin the same on or near school grounds.

The implementation of legalization in Colorado and Washington can inform California’s design for drug policy reform. For instance, California can learn from the design of Colorado’s legalization to protect the medical marijuana system. The design and unintended consequences of marijuana legalization, including its impact on youth, demand attention to guide the shift from a discriminatorily punitive to a public health approach to marijuana in California.