Escondido police Lt. Ed Varso, gives a presentation to Escondido’s Chamber of Commerce last week about the impacts on businesses and law enforcement if marijuana is legalize following the Nov. 8 election.
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Forum examines state’s proposal to legalize marijuana

ESCONDIDO — Proposition 64 brings the heat, regardless of the point of view.

The statewide proposal would legalize recreational marijuana and dispensaries, although the licensing process would not begin until Jan. 1, 2018.

On Thursday, the Escondido Chamber of Commerce held a forum for its members as Escondido Police Department Lt. Ed Varso gave a presentation.

Chamber Economic Chairman Ernie Cowan said the forum was not an endorsement for or against Prop 64, but rather to allow its members to ask questions about how it would affect businesses.

“I think you can see there is a number of economic impacts that this will represent at the municipal level and business level,” he explained. “There are wide divisions of opinions, but lets provide some facts.”

Varso said numerous San Diego County law enforcement officials have visited Colorado this summer to gather information about legalized marijuana there. Colorado and Washington were the first states to legalize the drug in November 2012, but Colorado was the first one to enact the law on Jan. 1, 2014. However, the drug is still illegal under federal law.

One glaring hole in Prop 64, Varso said, was the time between it being passed and the state creating its system for regulation, licensing, tax collection and other aspects.

If passed on Nov. 8, the law would go into effect Nov. 9. However, the Jan. 1, 2018, date leaves nearly a 14-month gap between, which Varso said would put law enforcement in a gray area.

“It’s a pretty good case study,” Varso said of Colorado. “They have booming tourism and people moving there. (However) youth homelessness has increased and there is a growing black market.”

As for businesses, Varso said the law allows for those entities to put in place or keep current workplace policies.

The Escondido City Council, meanwhile, passed an ordinance earlier this year banning all retail, cultivation and deliveries for medical marijuana. The new law, though, would allow for deliveries, even if the council remains steadfast in banning recreational stores and cultivation operations.

Individuals would be allowed to smoke in their homes, although landlords will remain in the right to prohibit smoking or growing personal plants.

“Tobacco and marijuana would be allowed in the same places,” Varso said. “Hookah lounges would be a good model.”

Varso, though, said numerous health and safety issues have spiked since Colorado legalized the drug. For example, the number of marijuana-related driving under the influence cases, as well as overdoses and deaths attributed to the drug.

The bill would also allow individuals to cultivate up to six plants at home and reduce sentencing guidelines. The first two offenses for illegal sales would be a misdemeanor, carrying a $500 fine followed by a possible felony, or “wobbler,” leaving discretion to a judge whether or not it would be a misdemeanor or felony.

Sales to minors will carry a three to seven-year prison sentence.

“It undermines some of what we do,” Varso said.

One chamber member said Escondido may as well fall in line and legalize it as to not miss out on the tax revenue. According to the Prop 64 bill, $1.4 billion in tax revenue is expected to be generated in the first year.

The tax rate is calls for $9.25 per ounce, $2.75 per bud, a 15 percent excise tax and 7.5 percent state sales tax.

Of course, others in attendance were staunchly against the city allowing retail sales.

Varso said data from Colorado shows an increase in violent crime, which has been attributed to the legalization.

On the other hand, proponents argue those numbers from law enforcement are inflated and ignore the tax benefits, medicinal purposes, increase in business and funding of anti-drug programs.

Regardless, Prop. 64 would allocate tax revenues to several areas including medicinal research at a state and university level. It would earmark the first $10 million for university studies, $3 million for a California Highway Patrol drugged driving study and $2 million to an organ study.

Once those funds are distributed, 60 percent would fund youth prevention and 20 percent each to environmental protections (such as streams diverted for illegal grow operations) and local law enforcement grants for enforcement.

“You have to consider the cost,” Varso added. “As the saying goes, ‘As goes California, so goes the nation.’”