It’s Time for California to Legalize Marijuana

Jun 14, 2016
Margaret Dooley-Sammuli

Page Media

adult hands

California voters will be asked to legalize marijuana in November – and we couldn’t be happier that our state might finally end this chapter of the failed war on drugs.

The last time Californians were given the option to legalize marijuana – Prop 19 in 2010 – it prompted then Governor Schwarzenegger to sign a bill to decriminalize low-level marijuana possession in our state. Along with wide access to medical marijuana, some have suggested that marijuana is de facto legal already in California. They are wrong.

Low-level marijuana possession went from a misdemeanor to an infraction in California in 2011, but the criminalization of marijuana use, possession, and sales still leads to thousands of arrests each year. From 2011 to 2014, law enforcement agencies made 60,000 marijuana arrests in California. These arrests hit young people of color the hardest, although people use marijuana at similar rates across races and ethnicities.

In 2014, young people under the age of 20 made up 73 percent of all misdemeanor marijuana arrests in the state. Nearly 70 percent of all marijuana arrests were of people of color. The Drug Policy Alliance and ACLU recently looked at infraction data from Fresno and Los Angeles Police Departments and found that racial disparities in marijuana arrests continue even at the lowest level.

Fortunately, California voters will have the opportunity to choose smart regulation over criminalization this year.

The Adult Use of Marijuana Act (AUMA), expected to appear on the state ballot in November, will establish a controlled and regulated personal use market for adults, significantly reduce the over-criminalization of young people of color under current marijuana laws, and generate substantial revenue for drug education and for the communities most devastated by the failed war on drugs.

Knowing that California voters would be asked to decide on a regulated marijuana market in the near future, Lt Governor Gavin Newsom and the ACLU of California convened the Blue Ribbon Commission on Marijuana Policy ( in 2013. Made up of leading legal, academic, law enforcement and policy experts from across the state and nation, the Blue Ribbon Commission took on a two-year research effort to help guide voters and policy makers in creating a strict marijuana tax and regulation system.

In the ACLU’s view, AUMA is a comprehensive proposal that incorporates consensus findings based on extensive research and discussion. Most importantly, it includes measures that will protect young people, maintain public safety, and establish workable taxation and regulation. In short: AUMA is not just the right thing to do, it’s a smart way to do it.

AUMA will:

  • Allow adults aged 21 and over to possess, transport, purchase, consume, and share up to one ounce of marijuana for nonmedical purposes; and to cultivate up to 6 plants at home outside of public view.
  • Reduce some criminal penalties and allow people previously convicted of marijuana crimes that, under the measure, would no longer be crimes or would be a lesser offense to petition a court for penalty reductions or record expungement.
  • Limit criminal penalties for juveniles and young adults (under 21), in most cases to infractions with fines and with evidence-based drug education as an alternative to a fine.
  • Create a state regulatory structure for nonmedical marijuana that builds on the recently adopted medical marijuana regulations.
  • Protect the status of the state’s medical marijuana patients in various critical ways, including privacy protections and exemptions from the 6-plant cultivation limit and sales tax on medical marijuana purchases.
  • Direct tax revenue to youth substance abuse education, prevention and treatment, state and local law enforcement, and environmental restoration and water protection. (The Legislative Analyst’s Office estimates annual revenue at several hundreds of millions to $1 billion.)

AUMA has been endorsed by the California Medical Association, California NAACP, California Council of Land Trusts, Drug Policy Alliance, Marijuana Policy Project, and California Cannabis Industry Association among many others.

For more information on the measure, visit

Margaret Dooley-Sammuli is the ACLU of California's Criminal Justice and Drug Policy Director.