By Lisa Leff and Marcus Wohlsen
SAN FRANCISCO — Imagine it's the day after the election, and California awakes to a brave new state where marijuana is the same as alcohol, at least legally.
Does that mean anyone over 21 can head to the nearest medical marijuana club and buy pot for personal pleasure? Will police set up sobriety checkpoints to snare stoned drivers? Can Giants fans step outside a sports bar for a quick sidewalk toke or nibble on cannabis-infused cocktail munchies?
If voters approve a ballot initiative to legalize and allow the taxing of recreational marijuana, these are some of the new social scenarios that could play out in the days, weeks and months ahead. Proposition 19 would take effect immediately, although the drug will remain illegal under federal law.
Though the measure has recently fallen behind in the polls, its passage would mean that starting Wednesday adults could carry around up to an ounce of their own marijuana and related paraphernalia without fear of arrest by state and local authorities. They could also tend a home garden up to 25 square feet big and consume its fruits in a "nonpublic place," but not in parks, near schools or on the street.
Beyond that, the future gets hazier. The proposed law leaves it up to local governments to license businesses that want to allow onsite pot use by patrons, to authorize commercial cultivation and retail sales, and to reap revenue from the newly legalized drug through taxes and fees.
"We are going to see the whole gamut, the liquor store on the corner potentially, but there will also be some smoke-easy type of establishments where the hipsters hang out and members-only clubs," predicted Omar Figueroa, a criminal defense lawyer who specializes in marijuana cases. "Some of them will be very upscale, and some will be more like opium dens."
But if California's experience with medical marijuana is any indicator, even the state's most liberal enclaves are in for a long process of figuring out what they will allow and of marijuana advocates testing the boundaries.
For starters, the state's tough anti-smoking laws ban smoking in bars and restaurants. Any establishment that wanted to make itself an exception without operating underground would face regulatory hurdles.
Yet that does not discourage enterprising pot enthusiasts like Justin Hartfield, the founder of an online medical marijuana directory called WeedMaps.com, who draws inspiration from Amsterdam, where marijuana is sold and smoked at coffee shops.
Hartfield has visions of Los Angeles becoming a hub for clubs, art galleries and restaurants where patrons can use herbal vaporizers that allow them to inhale marijuana without creating smoke.
"I can imagine someone setting up a Starbucks that has vaporizers sitting on tables along with all the usual stuff you see at Starbucks," Hartfield said.
But even in San Francisco, cafe and bar owners question the Amsterdam comparison. Janet Clyde, co-owner of Vesuvio, the famous watering hole for beatniks like Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady, said bars like hers would not likely add another intoxicant to their menus.
The city well-known for its liberal politics is also famous for its red tape, and Clyde said she believed San Francisco officials would stick to allowing retail sales only at the city's 30 or so medical marijuana dispensaries, which have already undergone an elaborate permitting process.
"We figure we'll just do what we do well and let other people do what they do well," Clyde said. "As business people we really have no interest in changing it up."
In Humboldt County, a world-famous hub of marijuana cultivation, the Board of Supervisors has endorsed Proposition 19. And some growers already are working with county officials to establish environmental standards for their operations.
"We want to welcome and work with those who want to daylight the industry and help us address needed regulations," said Supervisor Bonnie Neeley.
Because the amendment lets cities and counties decide for themselves how to regulate marijuana, Proposition 19's backers say they envision there will be "green counties" where pot is grown and sold and "brown counties" where those activities remain outlawed.
In Fresno County, Supervisor Henry Perea led recent efforts to impose a moratorium on all outdoor marijuana cultivation. Narcotics officers said the county has seen a recent surge in open growing of large pot plots in farm fields and backyards under flimsy medical marijuana recommendations.
Shootings and robberies connected to marijuana growing have set the county on edge, Perea said, and he does not believe Proposition 19 will change the situation.
"We're definitely wanting to send a strong signal that unless something significant changes we're going to say no, you're not going to grow this outdoors in our county," Perea said.
Doctors who provide medical marijuana recommendations would likely be early casualties of Proposition 19. Many users obtain the recommendations as legal cover for their recreational use of the drug. Under the ballot measure, those users would no longer need the protection of a physician's recommendation.
"I think you will see a lot of the medical clinics that exclusively offer cannabis recommendations close pretty quickly," said Dr. Sean Breen, medical director of the Medical Cannabis of Southern California Physician Center.
Brad Senesac, marketing director for the Berkeley Patients Group dispensary, said that some medical marijuana outlets could be serving recreational users alongside existing patients by early December.
The Berkeley Patients Group has not taken a position on Proposition 19. Senesac acknowledges that many medical marijuana pioneers are conflicted about legalization, fearing they might be driven out of business by corporate competitors.
"Everyone is at a little bit of a stalemate, what do you think is going to happen, and we really can't guess," Senesac said.
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