July 11, 2016

Washington, Colorado, and now California?

A conversation on marijuana legalization with Abdi Soltani of the ACLU of Northern California

By Sarah Seiter, associate curator of natural sciences

With contributions from Claudia Leung

Updated August 18, 2016.
As we put together the exhibition Altered State: Marijuana in California, we learned there’s a lot to consider when it comes to cannabis. With the legalization of marijuana on the California ballot this November, OMCA is offering monthly Ask an Expert programs, connecting the public with knowledgeable leaders in the field to answer everyone’s burning questions about pot. August’s featured expert was Abdi Soltani, a co-chair of Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Marijuana Policy. We sat down with him to discuss some of the topics he covered during his residency at OMCA.
—OMCA Associate Curator of Natural Sciences Sarah Seiter

Sarah Seiter: Tell us a little bit about yourself and your work.

Abdi Soltani: I am the Executive Director of the ACLU of Northern California, and I’ve been here for seven years in that capacity. Let me get this right out of the way: I’ve never used marijuana; I’ve never had an interest in doing so. My interest in this issue really comes from the perspective of public policy around marijuana, and in particular, the intersections with civil liberties and civil rights.

SS: What are some of the most commonly held misconceptions about marijuana, and in particular, legalization and criminalization?

AS: We have to look at marijuana in the context of United States drug policy. The legalization of marijuana at the state level is a step in the unwinding of the War on Drugs and also raises a lot of really complicated, interesting questions. There’s a wonderful book by a friend of mine, Michelle Alexander, called The New Jim Crow. She makes the argument that the War on Drugs was a code word for bringing back racially biased policies without blatantly being about race. The War on Drugs led to huge increases in the number of people getting incarcerated and dramatic racial disparities in those incarceration rates. The research generally shows that people of all races tend to use drugs at fairly similar rates, yet the disparities in drug law and enforcement are so substantial that these policies have had a major impact in perpetuating racial inequality.

SS: You were the co-chair of the Blue Ribbon Commission on Marijuana Policy with Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom, part of which involves paying close attention to how Colorado and Washington approach marijuana policy. What are the lessons learned from each state that could be applicable in California?

AS: In 1996, California became the very first state to legalize the medical use of marijuana. So we have this really great position to be in, because California has 20 years of its own experience with the medical market and we have the benefit of what we can learn from other states like Colorado and Washington which legalized adult use before us.

The biggest takeaway for me was that we have to craft a system of legal marijuana use according to California’s unique characteristics. There are several factors that are really significant. The first is demographics—California is a much more racially diverse state, and the issues of racial diversity and racial disparity have to be front and center in how we think about creating a new legal industry. A second major factor is that California has had a longstanding medical marijuana system with existing players who are involved in cultivation, distribution, and sale of marijuana to patients. We can draw lessons from other states, but ultimately have to craft legislation that fits and makes sense for the people of California.

SS: This June, the ACLU of California endorsed Prop 64: The Adult Use of Marijuana Act—a measure that has qualified to be on the November statewide ballot. Why has the ACLU of California chosen to endorse it at this time, and what do you see as the key implications of this proposition?

AS: The measure really covers the major issues that need to be addressed. It takes the right steps in reducing the criminal penalties in many aspects of marijuana law, from possession to sale and so on—preserving the most serious criminal penalties for those who operate large-scale enterprises outside of the legal market. The measure also provides avenues to invest in the communities that have had the worst impact of the War on Drugs, in terms of arrest rates and incarceration rates. It provides a framework for legalization to move forward, but it also provides some flexibility for local government, for the state regulator, and the legislature to make adjustments to respond to what will obviously be a complicated implementation process. Having learned so much through the Blue Ribbon Commission’s work, I had set a high bar for what I thought a marijuana legalization measure has to meet, and this definitely does meet that bar.

SS: What do you think of our exhibition Altered State: Marijuana in California?

AS: I really admire that the Oakland Museum of California is giving marijuana the serious attention that it deserves. In all the time that I’ve worked on marijuana policy, it’s incredible how often people make comments about being stoned or having the munchies. Finding some levity is okay, but we have to treat this as a topic worthy of serious examination and discussion, and it’s great that the Museum has created the space for people to examine this subject and think about it from so many angles.

Altered State: Marijuana in California is on view through September 25, 2016.

The opinions expressed in this interview do not necessarily reflect those of the Oakland Museum of California, its staff, Board of Directors, or other affiliated parties.