Legal pot plan faces strong opposition

March 22, 2010


Arnold Schwarzenegger takes a long puff on a joint, throws his head back and smiles as he slowly exhales. The scene is from “Pumping Iron,” the documentary on the 1975 Mr. Olympia contest, which starred the future governor of California. Although he’s been caught on film engaging in an illegal act that could get him thrown in jail, at a press conference last May Schwarzenegger said he doesn’t believe it’s time for marijuana to be legalized and taxed in California.

But he did say, “I think it’s time for a debate. I think of all of those ideas of creating extra revenues I’m always for an open debate on it. I think we should study very carefully on what other countries are doing that have legalized marijuana and other drugs, what effect did it have on those countries and are they happy with their decision. In Austria I heard they are unhappy with that and rolled back. It could very well be that everyone is happy with their decision, and then we can look at that. If not, we should not do it.” In a CNN interview a few weeks later he noted that a legalization initiative might one day be placed on the ballot, adding, “If the voters make that decision (to support legalization), that’s fine.”

In 2010 that debate has begun. Marijuana legalization efforts are under way on two fronts: an initiative likely headed to the November ballot, and legislation proposed by San Francisco Democratic Assemblyman Tom Ammiano. But you might want to hold off on firing up that spliff in celebration just yet. A coalition of law enforcement officers, drug treatment officials and religious leaders are prepared to wage war against legalization. In addition, politicians are wary of getting out front on such a controversial issue. And, while a slim majority of Californians support legalization, that support is likely soft and could wilt under an anti-legalization campaign.

The initiative, which is sponsored by Richard Lee, founder of the Oakland marijuana-cultivation school Oaksterdam University, has been given the sober title “The Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis Act of 2010.” It allows anyone 21 or older to possess, cultivate or transport marijuana for personal use. Local governments would be allowed to regulate and tax commercial production and sale of marijuana. Possession of marijuana would be banned in public, and you couldn’t smoke it while minors are present or provide it to anyone under 21. Proponents claim that taxing marijuana, possibly $50/ounce, would generate billions of dollars for California’s cash-strapped budget, based on an estimated $15 billion in marijuana sales in the state each year, making it California’s largest cash crop.

Tens of millions more dollars could be saved by no longer arresting and imprisoning people for marijuana-related offenses.

On the legislative front, Ammiano has introduced AB2254, the Marijuana Control, Regulation, and Education Act of 2010, which is very similar to the initiative. It’s also identical to Ammiano’s AB390, which made history in January by becoming the first marijuana legalization bill approved by a legislative body (a 4-3 vote in the Public Safety Committee), but which then ran out of time for consideration in this year’s Assembly floor calendar. AB2254 has been referred to the Health Committee and may be considered again by the Public Safety Committee.

The debate in the Jan. 12 Public Safety Committee hearing was a preview of the debate to come on the Assembly floor and statewide.

Legalization advocates said taxing marijuana would generate nearly $1 billion annually for drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs and that legalization would free up law enforcement resources for important crimes. They argued that the war on drugs, like the prohibition of alcohol, has been a failure, that most Californians have used marijuana (including one in 10 in the past year), that alcohol and tobacco are much more dangerous than marijuana and that legalization would reduce drug-related crimes, including those by Mexican cartels. They also said that African-Americans are three times more likely to be arrested for marijuana.

And there’s the issue of individual privacy. “People that aren’t hurting anyone should simply be left alone,” said Stephen Gutwillig, California director of the Drug Policy Alliance. “Bring it out of the underground economy, regulate it appropriately and reallocate criminal justice resources to matters of real public safety.”

Legalization opponents argued that the war on drugs is working because far fewer school children have tried marijuana than have tried alcohol or tobacco, asserted that legal marijuana revenue would strengthen drug cartels and warned that legalization would lead to an increase in marijuana use and drug-related traffic deaths and injuries. They argued that legalization was a failure when it was tried in Alaska, and that it has failed in the Netherlands where it has led to an increase in crime. They also pointed out that marijuana contains carcinogenic substances.

The most effective appeal against legalization came from Bishop Ron Allen of the International Faith-Based Coalition. A 30-second commercial featuring Allen has the potential to single-handedly kill the initiative.

“I live it every day. I don’t need to write down talking points. I see the devastation of marijuana and drugs in my community,” he told the committee. “In 2009 I buried six youth. Come and look in that coffin with me and you can really see the devastation of drugs in our community. (Marijuana) tax dollars on the backs of our youth? Are you kidding me? Why in the world would we want to legalize one more drug and to say its going to cure our economy? It’s going to cause us to lose a generation. Is it really worth it? I am a recovered addict myself – seven years on crack cocaine. I have firsthand experience of what addiction will cause. My first choice of drugs was marijuana. I graduated to crack cocaine. Listen to my heart, I don’t think you want this blood on your hands. I have a real strong feeling that I’m going to bury more youth in 2010. Think about the devastation, the carnage, the youth, the next generation.”

The legalization effort definitely faces an uphill battle. A couple of the Democratic legislators on the Public Safety Committee who voted to move the bill to the Assembly floor did so reluctantly, calling it flawed legislation and indicating they would vote against it on the floor. But they voted for it because they believe it’s about time to have the issue studied, debated and possibly legislated in Sacramento rather than decided by the initiative process.

Dale Gieringer, California coordinator for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), is not optimistic that legalization will happen any time soon in Sacramento or via the initiative, although his organization, of course, backs both efforts. “I am sure that the politicians would rather let the voters vote first on this,” he said. “Politicians are always behind the curve. You can ask Ammiano, who will tell you all of these Republicans say, ‘I smoked that shit and it should be legal, but no way will I vote for that.’ That’s the widespread perception – they don’t feel comfortable supporting it at this time.”

Gieringer said he would be pleasantly surprised if the November initiative passed, but doesn’t put a lot of faith in the 52-37 support for legalization in last year’s Zogby poll. “It’s a tall order,” he said. “It’s a complicated issue and it’s the first time it’s coming to a vote. I have been around here for a long, long time. And I think progress happens at a slightly slower rate.” He predicts it may take five to 10 years.

In case legalization is premature, smaller efforts are also underway. State Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, has introduced SB1449, which would downgrade possession of one ounce or less of marijuana to an infraction instead of a misdemeanor, allowing the offender to simply pay a $100 fine rather than have to appear in court. Ammiano has also introduced AB1811, which legalizes the sale of drug paraphernalia such as pipes, bongs, growing equipment, scales and packaging used for medical marijuana. It’s scheduled for a hearing in the Public Safety Committee on March 23.

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