MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:
California started a national trend 14 years ago when it became the first state to legalize medical marijuana. Now, comes Proposition 19, a measure on next week's California ballot that would make recreational pot legal. This morning we begin a series on the issues at stake, and we'll hear from people for and against Prop 19. NPR's Mandalit Del Barco has the story.
MANDALIT DEL BARCO: At a garden Bistro in Sonoma County, Dragonfly de la Luz lights up her glass Hello Kitty pipe filled with primo California weed.
Ms. DRAGONFLY DE LA LUZ (Marijuana connoisseur, West Coat Cannabis and Skunk magazines & "Cannabis Planet"): My first toke of the day.
DEL BARCO: Dragonfly is a marijuana connoisseur for Skunk magazine and TV's "Cannabis Planet."
Ms. DE LA LUIZ: And I get stoned every day.
DEL BARCO: She has a medical marijuana card and a magazine column, "Getting High with Dragonfly."
Ms. DE LA LUIZ: My favorite strain, I just know it has to be Dr. Walker's Daze. It's pretty epic.
DEL BARCO: Dragonfly says she was excited, at first, to hear California was trying to legalize pot.
Ms. DE LA LUIZ: I thought it was a dream come true.
DEL BARCO: But after reading up on the initiative, she's now actively campaigning with her group Stoners Against Prop 19. Through clouds of marijuana smoke, Dragonfly explains the initiative would create more restrictions than the state already has. Californians would be able to legally possess, process, share or transport only one ounce of pot. And they could only grow it in a 25-square-foot area.
Ms. DE LA LUIZ: These exotic strains that we know and love are going to quickly become obsolete because a five-by-five space is just not enough space to breed and experiment with new strains. It would be a real shame if we lost all of this variety.
DEL BARCO: Proposition 19 would allow local governments to license commercial marijuana companies, something that worries self-professed stoners like Dragonfly.
Ms. DE LA LUIZ: We're kind of like anti-Wal-Mart and anti-McDonald's. So for them to try and sneak in and turn cannabis into a corporation, that's pretty disgusting.
DEL BARCO: A man who calls himself Ali Baba is here for the marijuana harvest season.
Mr. ALI BABA: God bless you guys. May there be peace on Earth.
DEL BARCO: He causally stops by to share a few joints as Dragonfly tries to convince him the proposed law is a downer for pot lovers.
Ms. DA LA LUIS: This beautiful, frosty sativa bud I'm holding did not come from a licensed dispensary. Under Prop 19, it would be illegal for me to possess this and to smoke it.
Mr. BABA: Why would it be illegal again?
Ms. DA LA LUIS: Because Prop 19 prohibits possession of cannabis bought anywhere other than a licensed dispensary.
Mr. BABA: Oh wow, they're really trying to capitalize on this industry with Prop 19. You guys better vote no, all right?
Mr. CHRIS WILSON: Hallelujah brother.
Mr. BABA: That's not cool with that...
DEL BARCO: Ali Baba high-fives Dragonfly's friend Chris Wilson, a small time grower who ekes out a living cultivating marijuana for himself and a collective.
Mr. WILSON: They're going to tax the hell out of me and I barely make it as it is. The way I'm just getting by. They're taxing everybody that they can, just because California's in debt. They see that the money can be made, like, unbelievable taxation, enough to push me out of business.
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DEL BARCO: Another grower named Jay, grooved to his favorite music as he cultivates marijuana plants in his garage. He doesn't want us to use his last name because part of his crop ends up on the black market.
Mr. WILSON: I'm going to let these grow out, and then I'm going to take clones off of them, and then eventually, like a week and a half, they'll grow roots and then you can pot them up, just like, you know, like that.
DEL BARCO: Jay is part of a cottage industry of mom-and-pop marijuana growers that help fuel the economies of Mendocino, Humboldt and Trinity counties, known as the Emerald Triangle in Northern California.
Jay worries that legalization will flood the market.
Mr. WILSON: Everyone's really scared about the prices going down. You know, and we all have, like, invested money here, and we all live here. Like, I have a daughter here, and my wife's a teacher. And you know, we're - everyone's scared because we don't know what the prices are going to be. Already, the prices have gone down and down. It's harder to sell it.
DEL BARCO: Like many who live off the grid in Mendocino, Michael Dork grows his pot outdoors. He just doesn't want to live by anybody's rules.
Mr. MICHAEL DORK: I don't really want to be on the map. And I think that it would affect the high, I believe, more of being free of all that stuff.
DEL BARCO: For once, these growers are on the same side as most cops. But Proposition 19 also has unlikely supporters, including a group of former judges, prosecutors and police officers, all in favor for legalizing pot.
Mr. STEPHEN DOWNING (Retired Deputy Chief of the LAPD): No one has ever died of an overdose of marijuana. No one has ever gone insane from its use.
DEL BARCO: Stephen Downing is a retired deputy chief of the LAPD. He says arresting people for possessing marijuana is waste of time for police when they could be solving violent crimes or targeting those controlling the illegal trade
Mr. DOWNING: We're taking away the black market. Marijuana provides 95 percent of the cartels' profits and they're using the hundreds of thousands of gang members to bring about their distribution, their collections, their enforcement, and their assassinations. And if we take the cartels' profits way, we're going to start drying them up.
DEL BARCO: Downing says taxing and regulating marijuana would be a start.
William Cox is another member of LEAP, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. The former LAPD sergeant says officers are more likely to bust young African-Americans and Latinos on marijuana charges.
Mr. WILLIAM COX (Former LAPD Sergeant, member of LEAP): More often than not, police officer stops someone, find them with a small amount of marijuana - if they are white, middle-class and acting respectfully toward the officers, they're told to go home.
DEL BARCO: The push to legalize recreational marijuana has other surprising support.
(Soundbite of baby talking)
Ms. SKYLA CHAPMAN: Do you want to say hi? Can you say hi?
DEL BARCO: Skyla Chapman brought her year and a half old daughter Isis to a children's playground in West Hollywood last week. She was with a group of mothers in favor of Proposition 19.
Ms. CHAPMAN: When it's regulated, then it's no longer in the drug dealers' hands. It's in respectable businesses' hands, where they'll card. They'll ID you.
DEL BARCO: Prop 19 would ban smoking pot on school grounds or around minors. Only adults older than 21 could possess, cultivate or transport marijuana for personal use.
Marijuana activist Dale Sky Jones, who is eight months pregnant, says her group is following the lead of mothers in the 1930s who helped do away with the ban on alcohol.
Ms. DALE SKY JONES: Prohibition was ended because of moms realizing this is where the violence came from. And we have an opportunity to end this failed policy of marijuana prohibition by taking it out of the hands of criminals and finally putting it into the hands of those that will control cannabis away from children.
DEL BARCO: If Proposition 19 passes, California would make history as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. But with moms all for it and stoners just saying no, it's a complicated issue many voters are still trying to wrap their heads around.
Mandalit Del Barco, NPR News.
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KELLY: Tomorrow we'll hear how race has become an issue in California's debate over legalized marijuana. And on our website, you'll find a state by state comparison of medical marijuana statutes. To find out if medical marijuana is legal in your state, visit npr.org.
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KELLY: This is NPR News.