SIGN OF THINGS TO COME? Legalization activists say 2016 is the year California will join Colorado and Washington in full legalization of marijuana.
West Marin medical-marijuana activist Jacqueline Patterson was born with cerebral palsy and started using cannabis while she was still in her teens to help a severe stuttering problem.
Born in the Midwest, Patterson took a rocky path to Marin County and full-time cannabis activism. She was sexually assaulted in Kansas City about 15 years ago, got pregnant as a result of the rape and moved home to Iowa, where her mother lives. The plan was to stay with Mom, have the baby, put it up for adoption.
Then in her early 20s, Patterson started going to college to study rape, its causes and how to prevent it. Her discovery: "You have to end the drug war to prevent rape," she says. "Cannabis makes for a less violent society."
Vindication would come years later, as she watched unfolding legalization dramas in Washington and Colorado—and the acceptance of medical cannabis in nearly half the country. Now California is set to vote on legalization in 2016 through a proposed referendum.
"Domestic violence rates are going down in states where cannabis is at least medically available," says Patterson, citing a growing body of available research, "and they are going down a lot where it is recreationally available."
Years ago, the news wasn't so rosy for Patterson. After giving her child up for adoption, she got married and had another child—only to lose custody over her medical-marijuana use.
California was a different story, especially when she wrecked her car, says Patterson. "It was really freeing to know that I was finally in a place where my human rights were respected," she says. "I feel safe not only in my community but with the people in my community who are entrusted to keep the order."
Part of Patterson's work involves helping patients with severe medical conditions relocate to California, a sort of underground railroad. But as she learned, in California, some safe havens are safer from police harassment than others. She's experienced different degrees of law-enforcement engagement as an approved medical marijuana user, disparities that state lawmakers have repeatedly failed to address.
This year, a dispensaries bill sponsored by the League of California Cities and the California Police Chiefs Association showed some promise—it would have created a set of medical marijuana regulations, until a flurry of last-minute tough-on-crime amendments tanked it.
"Police around the state are all over the map, and they don't always correspond to what the public wants," says Dale Gieringer, director of California NORML, the legalization advocacy group.
Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Washington, D.C.–based Drug Policy Alliance says that the two biggest concerns raised by the public around marijuana are that it wastes police resources and creates a punishment regime that goes far beyond the crime.
Patterson has interacted with Santa Rosa city police, the Marin County Sheriff's Department and California state police. The encounters, she says, range from pleasant to professional to rude.
"I've been pulled over in Santa Rosa, and I still feel like I'm being treated like a criminal because of that treatment," says Patterson. "Whereas I wrecked my car on Lucas Valley Road in Marin County and the highway patrol officer who came to the scene was like, 'Ma'am, I just want you to know that I can see the marijuana in your purse, and I don't care.'"
Santa Rosa has had "irrationally tight medical marijuana restrictions every since [dispensaries] settled there," says Gieringer.
The Santa Rosa Police Department did not return calls for comment.
For an exercise in contrast, see adjacent Sebastopol, he says, where the mayor owns the local dispensary. "If you have Robert Jacobs in your city establishing a dispensary, it makes for much more alignment [between law enforcement and the public] than if you have some rogue pirate guy who doesn't have roots in the area opening a dispensary in Santa Rosa," says Gieringer.
Still, California stands at the tipping point of what some call the next big civil rights battle. Several states have legalization measures on the ballot in 2015, but legalization proponents say the real action is going to be the year after.
"I consider 2016 the potential game-over year because that's when you are looking at California," says Piper. "We've reached the tipping point."
The proof, says Piper, is to be found, of all places, in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. This year, the House voted five times on bills that would keep the federal government from meddling with states' pot policies.
Also this year, 18 congressman (including North Bay representative Jared Huffman) sent a letter to President Barack Obama asking for his support in rescheduling or declassifying cannabis from its "schedule 1" status, which says the drug has no medical value whatsoever.
Symbolic gestures, yes. Yet as Piper says, "Members of Congress like to jump in front of a parade, but first you have to build the parade. We've built it."