California is set to vote on a measure that would legalise cannabis. Eoin Brady examines the potential consequences of this scheme

The Terminator runs it. It’s home to the Silicon Valley and some of the world’s most prestigious educational institutions, including Berkley and UCLA. If it were a country, it would have the seventh largest economy in the world. And today, November 2nd 2010, California is voting on a ballot that could launch an extraordinary social experiment.

Proposition 19 would make it legal for adults to grow, possess and recreationally use cannabis. This legal position would be more permissive than any other developed country’s.

Up until the last few weeks, polls had been showing that the proposition would pass with a small majority, but recently support has swung in the opposite direction, pointing to a narrow loss for pro-cannabis lobbyists. This swing is likely to have been influenced by a statement from US Attorney General, Eric Holder, who stated that federal cannabis laws would be “vigorously enforced,” even if California passed the measure.

As it stands, cannabis is available in California from licensed dispensaries for individuals with doctors’ recommendations. Registered growers can legally sell their produce to these dispensaries. Cannabis is accessible, not taboo and widely used – a statewide survey reported that 63 per cent of the city of Berkley’s eleventh graders had smoked cannabis. Despite the high levels of use prevailing, the legal changes in the proposition would be more than merely cosmetic.

British philosopher John Stewart Mill asserted: “Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.” He believed that if an adult wants to harm himself without affecting others, the state should have no role in preventing such behaviour – to do so would be an unjustifiable intrusion into an individual’s liberty.

Mill’s idea has credence with voters and politicians of almost every hue, even in an environment as bipartisan as the US. It would be of tremendous ideological significance for California to move from the murky light-touch enforcement that currently prevails to an unambiguous application of the liberal principle.

However, some groups opposing Proposition 19 – for example, the California Chamber of Commerce – argue that the legalisation of cannabis is not an issue of an individual’s sovereignty, that it would have implications for others, apart from the drug user.

The Chamber has produced an ad urging the listener to “imagine coming out of surgery, and the nurse caring for you was high. It could happen in California, if Proposition 19 passes.” Proponents have been quick to point out that behaviour like showing up to work high, or driving while high, would remain just as illegal as it is now. No luck for George Michael, then.

Drug use in the US has significant responsibility for the current situation south of the border. Proponents of Proposition 19 suggest that by legalising production, Californians would replace Mexican cannabis with their own version, thereby depriving Mexican drug cartels of the both the motivation to pursue the gang warfare that has killed 28,000, and the means to pay for it.

In the long term, the liberalisation of drug policy in the US will not provide a solution to Mexico’s drug problems as only 20 per cent of the cartels’ revenue is from cannabis. Legalisation in the US of production of the sources of the remaining 80 per cent of revenue (cocaine, methamphetamine and heroin) is not a realistic option.

RAND, a non-partisan policy research institute, projects that tax revenue from cannabis could amount to $1.4bn annually – a considerable sum for a state that’s running a deficit of over $19bn. However, projections of this nature are fraught with difficulty because of the sensitivity of projections to variations in the unknowns. High levels of tax evasion, for example, could change the picture dramatically.

Billionaire financier George Soros, the man who “broke the Bank of England,” has come out in support of the proposition and donated $1m to the cause. He characterises it as a civil rights issue.

In a Wall Street Journal opinion piece, Soros points out that even though black Americans use cannabis no more than their white counterparts, they are three to ten times (depending on the city) more likely to be arrested for it. He goes on to highlight the harm done to civil liberty and social cohesion by imprisoning otherwise law-abiding citizens for a relatively harmless act.

Though opposed to the measure himself, it remains to be seen whether Californian Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger will be forced to say, “Hasta la vista, ineffective, punitive and discriminatory drug policy.”