Will Marijuana Finally Be Legal in California?

By Jasen T. Davis

These are exciting times for proponents of cannabis legalization in California.

Conditions seem better as never before for pulling marijuana out of the grow closet and restoring it to its rightful place as a readily assessable and perfectly legal medicinal herb. It’s a near-perfect storm of circumstances: a progressive, reform-minded president in Washington and a lame-duck governor in Sacramento – both of who admit to having enjoyed pot in their youth; a crippling recession demanding innovative thinking about revenue streams; and a public mood already softened by Proposition 215, the California initiative legalizing the use of marijuana for medical purposes.

Indeed, much has changed in the 13 years since Californians passed the Compassionate Use Act. Proposition 215 was followed by Senate Bill 420 — the Medical Marijuana Program Act of 2003, which outlined how much medical marijuana a person could have and cultivate, required the California Department of State Health Services to establish a registry for patients, and called for the issuance of state I.D. cards for those who used medical marijuana. The two laws represented enormous steps toward sensible drug policy, but did not, in themselves, stop the insanity: Under the Bush Administration, raids on medical-marijuana clinics by the D.E.A. and F.B.I. were commonplace, since federal law made no distinction between medical and recreational marijuana use.

But times are a’changing. Raids have become considerably less frequent under the Obama Administration, given U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder’s recently announced that such crackdowns on dispensaries would be suspended.

Further, California Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, a Democrat from San Francisco, recently introduced Assembly Bill 390 — the Marijuana Control, Regulation and Education Act. If approved, the measure would allow anyone over 21 to use marijuana, and would tax sales of the plant at $50 an ounce. This legal protection would also extend to other cannabis forms, including hemp, which has a multitude of marketable uses. If the bill passes, marijuana and all paraphernalia related to its consumption would be treated similarly to porn and alcohol: locked up and kept in the back so children wouldn’t be exposed it.

In a victory for pro-marijuana advocates, the U.S. Supreme Court on May 18 refused to hear an appeal by San Diego and San Bernardino counties of a California Supreme Court decision requiring them to follow the law and start issuing state I.D. cards. Both counties had argued since 2006 that federal law trumped state law in the matter. The High Court’s refusal to hear the case allows the lower-court ruling to stand. This development by no means ends the argument over medical-marijuana, but it is a significant step in the process, and opens the door for additional state laws reforming marijuana laws. It may just be the cover state legislators needed to vote for AB 390.

It’s easy to understand the reticence of San Bernardino County and San Diego politicians over the medicinal use of pot. Since the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937) the plant, including hemp and cannabis, has not only been outlawed but demonized: For long decades, it’s been portrayed as a harmful addictive substance at worst and a silly product pushed by stoners and hippies at best.

Today, the discussion is no longer regulated to the ramblings of hippies and the pages of High Times. CNN, MSNBC, Time and The Nation and mainstream commentators like Glenn Beck, Rachel Maddow and Keith Olbermann have openly discussed the topic in a calm and mature tone — during prime time, no less. In more and more circles, marijuana prohibition is being compared to the failed prohibition against alcohol in the 1930s. This parallel speaks volumes about the substantial changes in the public consciousness over the past few years.

Ralph Nader made the issue of marijuana legalization a central plank in both of his bids for president in 2000 and 2004. Democratic Congressman Lorena Sanchez of California went on CNN to defend the legalization effort. While Governor Schwarzenegger hasn’t given the issue his full support, he at least has said that it’s time to discuss the subject. President Obama voiced approval for the medical use of marijuana during his campaign. A recent Zogby poll commissioned by the Marijuana Policy Project showed that 56% of Californians surveyed wanted to end the prohibition against marijuana.

None of this is to say that we can expect cannabis to put up on our grocery shelves any time soon. Marijuana still has its vast share of detractors, including John Lovell, lobbyist for the California Peace Officers Assn., and Joel W. Hay, a pharmaceutical economics professor at USC, who argue that pot clouds people’s judgment, is a gateway drug and causes cancer, and that greater availability would lead to a surge in use.

Nor are most mainstream politicians particularly anxious to jump headfirst into the fray. President Obama has proved much more hesitant than candidate Obama in calling for marijuana reform, and Schwarzenegger is, of course, on his way out of the governor’s office.

Further, Ammiano’s bill has already been subjected to withering attack. One criticism is that while commercial cultivators would have to acquire a license (costing up to $5,000, according to the proposal), the bill doesn’t address the issue of people who prefer to grow the plant for personal consumption. It’s one thing to try to regulate alcohol, which requires a lot of time and expensive equipment to produce, but as anyone who has ever grown it will tell you, marijuana grows just about anywhere with minimal care. Why spend $50 an ounce on taxes when you can grow your own and spend the money on a new pair of shoes.

The state legislature may have a bill before it calling for the legalization and taxation of cannabis, but it’s highly doubtful it will pass it on the first go-round.

But the Big Mo’ – momentum – is on the side of legalization, and for good reason. Marijuana remains California’s biggest cash crop, will annual sales estimated at about $11.4 billion. That’s a lot of green just begging for taxation – to the tune of about $1.3 billion a year for a state that’s barely able to pay its utility bills. Legalization would also provide financial relief on the federal level: The DEA spent nearly $10 million raiding California medical marijuana clinics between 2005 and 2007. In addition, the cost of prosecuting and incarcerating just one marijuana offender amounts about $500,000 an offender.

Regardless of the outcome, at least the debate in the argument for legalizing marijuana has been made public on a level that has never been seen before. This legitimizes the process far more than a bunch of declarations made by stoners getting lit in their parents’ basement. With so many politicians stepping forward to bravely discuss the topic, the prospects for California’s believers in the benefits of marijuana are brighter than ever.

Marijuana Control, Regulation and Education Act If passed:

Will tax and regulate marijuana in a manner similar to alcohol.

Marijuana can only be sold to individuals who are 21 and over.

Marijuana and related paraphernalia must be sold in separate areas and otherwise kept in locked display cases.

Tariff of $50 per ounce for marijuana sold in California.

Requires grows to obtain a $5,000 commercial grow license.

Portions of bill provide funding for drug awareness and abuse and addiction prevention.

Many organizations, according to economic, scientific and legislative research, believe that the passage of the Act would save California $1 billion and provide $12-$18 billion in additional economic benefits.

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