Heather Burke | Why I’m Voting Yes on 64: A Tortured Analysis

NEVADA CITY, Calif. November 4, 2016 – Admittedly, Prop 64 does nothing to alter the corrupted capitalist economic system in our nation.  That means that if-and-when cannabis enters the commercial market, it enters a capitalist commercial market where traditional market forces will be in play, for better or worse.  And I’m still voting yes. Here’s why:

I am a criminal defense attorney. My task each day is to defend those who are charged with cannabis felonies throughout the California. Prop 64’s primary redeeming quality is it will have a sweeping effect on current California’s cannabis prohibition, where cultivating cannabis is currently presumed to be a felony unless one can prove their conduct was medical and not for profit.  Today’s cannabis law and today’s cannabis industry simply do not match, which works to the advantage of law enforcement who often seize upon this confusion out in the cannabis fields to arrest farmers first, and ask questions later.

Importantly, illegal cultivation is a straight felony under SB 420 or MCRSA, as misdemeanor cultivation does not even exist in California law today. This should be a heightened concern to growers in ban counties, such as most of the Sierra foothills.  However, if 64 passes, any illegal conduct becomes a misdemeanor unless its (1) a person’s 3rd offense, (2) if the cultivation is conducted in conjunction with an environmental crime, or (3) if transporting out of state.  Even with the influx of cash to law enforcement from Prop 64, law enforcement does not have the same resources or authority to investigate misdemeanants as it does felons. Perhaps equally important, Prop 64 explicitly negates the smell of cannabis as the necessary probable cause that cops use to get into homes and cars. That’s a sweeping disadvantage to law enforcement and will have massive effects on how they can investigate our people. I cannot stress how important these changes could be for growers.

Next, I am wary of those (often wealthy out-of-staters who moved to California in the recent years for the specific purpose of cultivating cannabis) who are advising those of us who were born here that the corporations are going to take over.  Those corporations are already here, my friends.  There are people at our own local policy meetings that would happily vertically integrate if they could and push the diversity of our small farms out of the market in favor of market domination. If we think the big guys have the small farmers’ backs today, we’re kidding ourselves. It is already happening.  The competitive application processes thus far around the state have been a bloodbath, as is often the case in a corrupted capitalist system such as ours. Steve DeAngelo of Harborside spoke in Nevada County recently and said the future of the small farmer is to lease space from the large cultivators!  And he wasn’t talking about Prop 64, folks.

To some degree, the preservation and promotion of self is human nature, regardless of the economic system in play.  In fact, the most common question at my office is “how can I establish priority for future licensing?,” raising the inference that if there is a cap on number of permits, most folks want to be one of those few, to the exclusion of others.  Lets also take a moment to recall Prop 64’s allowance of priority and vertical integration sent hundreds—perhaps thousands—of NorCal growers to ill-advisedly rush to file for cooperatives prior to September 1 this summer. The same insane bumrush happened last December regarding the MCRSA priority. Trust me, someone out there is already gunning to throw other small farmers under the bus, Prop 64 or not.  Prop 64 just takes that felony bus and makes it a misdemeanor.

In California, we should instead look closer at competitive capitalism, the effect of money in politics, and a grossly unjust legal system, rather than reject a second semi-legalization initiative.  Instead of infighting, I wish our community would focus on addressing the corruption in these underlying power systems, making sure that more small businesses, people of color, women and those with cannabis-related criminal histories, are supported in this new era.

Finally, a particularly violent anti-64 grower I know (in another County) has thrived in the black and grey market because his cannabis is subpar by all accounts, and has been so for years.  Market forces should drive out the growers who lie about their pesticide use, or inflate the cannabinoid content.  The market will make sure the money he made in the past would now go to someone else who does play by the rules, who is willing to have their cannabis tested by a laboratory, who pays taxes, make sure their product is labeled truthfully, who makes sure to follow the appropriate regulatory process.  Small growers will be able to get their permits and can even thrive, if they are willing to do the hard work of increasing the quality of their brand, marketing their product well, banding with others, coming to the policy meetings to shape the regulations in their favor, and who will do the work required of legitimate business.

I admit this is a tortured doom-and-gloom analysis, and it saddens me that I just don’t see another option. Prop 19 was far better than Prop 64, so I doubt the next one is going to be better.  Who would fund another and more expensive legalization initiative after two failed in California? My heart is heavy about this, as the harsh realities of Prop 64 has exposed some of the darker sides of California cannabis, on both sides of the issue.  I can only pray we respect each others opinion and our Constitutional and ethical imperative to VOTE, and look forward to that day when we reunite in a meaningful way to focus on the greater problems we continue to battle: money in politics and a broken legal system.

Those evils will persist, regardless of the outcome of this election. Please do not let this divide our community any further.  Either way, we have so much work to do.

Heather Burke is a criminal defense attorney specializing in cannabis law in California.